Teddy Bear Throwdown

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This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on Amazon.com now.
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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.

photo by Rosemary Ratcliff www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by Rosemary Ratcliff
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

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.

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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.

photo by chrisroll www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by chrisroll
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

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.

photo by "chrisroll" www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by “chrisroll”
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

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.

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Fun with Sunstroke

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This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on Amazon.com now.
I lay there on my sticky mat and tried not to move. My body was emanating more heat than an Easy Bake Oven as my cellie retched out the few remaining contents of his stomach into the steel toilet. He had spurned my courteous warnings and was reaping the regurgitative rewards, but I didn’t have the strength to say, “I told you so.”
===
I was on a court writ in The Birdcage. Summer was finally stretching its legs after a long dark winter that held the sun hostage behind dreary gray clouds for six months. It was a beautiful day with clear blue skies, cotton-candy clouds, and more UV rays than my body had seen in four years. My Caucasian complexion had paled so much from a complete lack of natural light that blue veins stood out starkly below the surface of my skin. I was practically translucent. All that would change, however, because I was about to go to the yard—the only yard that would be offered all week. Even though my cellie hadn’t been sun-starved for nearly as long as I had, we were both as giddy as little kids on Christmas morning.

photo by Idea go www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by Idea go
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

Despite the fact that we were grown men and hardened criminals, it felt more like recess in elementary school. The occupants of three gallery rushed into the huge expanse of green grass, which was bordered on two sides by an impressively intimidating thirty-foot wall and a rusted ten-foot fence topped with barbed wire on the other two sides. I’d been warned about groundhog holes and how easily an ankle could be twisted or snapped in one of them, but I was caught up in the frenzy of the moment and sprinted across the yard—oblivious of the dangers and fueled by sheer childlike whimsy.

My cellie made a beeline for the basketball court, while my destination was much less defined. I had no other agenda than to soak up some sun and walk so I could knock the rust off. I’d been cooped up in a cell for over a week, and I just wanted to enjoy the glorious day.

After one lap around the edge of the yard, with only one close call as my foot slipped into an unseen hole in the ground, I stripped my shirt off to better let my body catch some of the rays I’d been denied for so long. It was a hot day, but not terribly humid, with a perfect whisper of breeze to chase away any trace of stagnant, oppressive heat. I made my way to the middle of the yard where the grass was a lush, thick, dark green; I wanted to harness as much solitude as I could muster, considering my circumstances. The sun’s wonderful warmth felt amazing on my bare shoulders. I closed my eyes and turned my face upward to greet the smiling sky. The day glowed like a ripe orange against my eyelids, and the sounds of my fellow convicts were little more than distant murmurs. I breathed in the smell of the grass beneath my feet and felt at peace, as if I were standing in some far-off field filled with wide open space instead of this counterfeit one where walls and fences stymied my freedom. Basking in the sun like that, I stood there until I felt weak-kneed and dizzy, drunk on the sun. My reveling in the sunshine continued for hours; I gorged myself on it, as if it was food and I’d gone without a meal for days. I was a glutton for it.

Yard was meant to last for three hours, but that deadline came and went. The sun crept into the steeple of the sky and became less lovely, and increasingly uncomfortable. The ice-filled garbage bag that the C/O had tossed onto the ground when we came out at 9:00 a.m.—the water supply for about 70 guys—had long ago melted to nothing more than a soggy mess. Hiding in the bit of shade provided by the towering walls became impossible as the sun burned down without an ounce of mercy. My speedy walking had long ago become a crawl punctuated by periods of standing around talking to a few guys. I had done time with some of them in other institutions and was reconnecting with them after several years apart.

photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

On one of my leisurely strolls, I observed my cellie doubled over at the waist in the center of the basketball court while midway through a one-on-one game. He was hugging the ball to his belly as he dripped sweat and heaved air in and out. I hollered genially for him to sit his ass down before he passed out. He waved me off and tried to stand, but had to hunch back over immediately. I walked to the edge of the basketball court to tell him that he was probably dehydrated and should rest. In case he hadn’t realized it, I also informed him that he’d been going at it non-stop for four hours. Both of us were only being housed at this particular joint for temporary court writs, so we’d only known each other five days. He swiveled his head in my direction, twisted his face into a sneer, and hurled angry curses at me. I took that as my cue to leave him be.

I took up a position with my back against the fence and felt the sun beat against my body with a brutality that wouldn’t let up. The pleasant morning breeze had long since ceased, so all that remained were conditions commensurate with a convection oven; the inmates were pieces of meat left to sizzle too long. All told, we were outside for just under five hours, with no lunch. I’d only had a mouthful of melted ice to combat the effects of dehydration. By the time the C/O wandered out to bring us back inside, I felt like a dried-out chunk of old beef jerky.

Back in our cells, our Styrofoam trays of lunch were waiting for us—cold and surrounded by a dozen flies desperately trying to get at the sustenance inside. I had been at the front of the long line of inmates moving two by two while my cellie lagged at the rear. This gave me a few minutes to myself in the cell, enough to douse my head and torso in cool water and taste the glorious elixir one sip at a time.

By the time my cellie stumbled into the doorway of the cell, I felt, if not normal, at least well on my way in the right direction. The exercise and heat had sapped me of all energy, and even though my stomach was in my back, all I wanted was to lie down for a moment. Meanwhile, my cellie had stalled in the doorway and was being yelled at to get in his cell. He slumped against the jamb, his shirt off and tucked into his waistband; his skin was suspiciously clammy but not slick with sweat.

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“Cellie,” I said in a loud voice meant to cut through his obvious exhaustion. He moaned a little, and the C/O yelled at him some more. He sounded angrier this time, and called out our cell number as if there was some confusion as to who exactly was blocking their cell door. I placed my hand on my cellie’s shoulder; it was cool to the touch. Somewhere deep in the muddled and malnourished recesses of my mind, I knew that this was a sign or symptom of something bad, but I was preoccupied with several other things, not the least of which was getting my cellie inside the cell. He responded to my touch with a grunt, but also allowed himself to be directed into the cell before leaning against the wall and using it to keep himself upright while sliding his way to the sink. I got out of his way, and the door closed behind us.

He plunked his head into the sink, making a sound that seemed like it would be painful, and pushed the button for the cold water. A stream arced up for ten seconds before cutting off, and he pressed the button half a dozen times to soak his head before raising his mouth to the spigot to slurp greedily at the water. “Cellie, you want to go slow or you’ll be sick.” Again he turned his head to glare at me, but this time he let the look do all the talking for him. Then he returned to guzzling as much H2O as he could force down his throat.

I put my food tray onto my top bunk and dragged my weary body up next to it, but didn’t even bother to open the lid and check what sloptastic dish we’d been served. Instead, I sprawled out with my toes pointed to the corners of my narrow bunk and the tray safely in the space between my knees. I was shirtless, as I had been for nearly the entire time outdoors, and my flesh was giving off so much heat I could feel it rising from me in waves. I wished I had my fan to provide some relief, but they’re not allowed on court writs. My personal reverie was destroyed by the sounds of my cellie first moaning loudly, then expelling copious wet vomitus.

Each retch was accompanied by the attendant splashing sounds and punctuated with a pained groan before further puking ensued. While I felt sorry for the guy, I don’t deny that I definitely derived a bit of satisfaction from his suffering (which he could have avoided if he’d listened to me). Eventually, his regurgitating subsided, and I dozed off for a while.

nationalgeographic.com
nationalgeographic.com

When I awoke, my cellie was unconscious and unresponsive to my calls. His cheek was balanced on the seat of the toilet, his arms were wrapped around the bowl like it was a lover, and his legs were curled up beneath him. I crawled out of bed, careful of my still-uneaten tray of food, and roused him with increasingly not-so-gentle nudges to his back and shoulders until he finally moved and seemed mostly alive. He drank some water, this time following my directions to sip carefully. He looked pale—which wasn’t easy because he was an African American with a rather dark complexion. I made him sit and eat from his tray, even though he protested that he just wanted to lie down. Then I let him sip more water before letting him rest on his bunk. He was unconscious and breathing loudly through a wide-open mouth within a minute of reclining.

My short nap had refreshed me somewhat, and I devoured the chicken stir-fry with big chunks of onion and green pepper. It was orgasmically delicious. Once my hunger was satisfied and my thirst slaked, I felt alive again, rather than half-deceased from sunstroke. I noticed little bumps on my shoulders and thought it was perspiration erupting on the surface of my skin, but it wasn’t. It was blisters already arising on my scorched flesh. The skin would become painfully shredded and peel over the next week. It was so completely desiccated and raw that my shoulders didn’t appear to belong to a human.

Having been deprived of the sun’s effects for so long, I went overboard and tried to make up for all my lost time. A spray of freckles across my shoulders remains as a testament and reminder of my reckless behavior and to the wreckage my shoulders had once been. Soaking up the sun is a wonderful feeling and a necessary activity, but it’s always best done in moderation.

A Confluence of Unfortunate Occurrences

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This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on Amazon.com now.
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Standing there with my bruises and torn boxer shorts, I felt the unwarranted shame of a victim, as if I had somehow done something to bring this entire situation upon myself. Sometimes bad things just happen.

===
To begin with, I wasn’t expecting a court writ. If I’d known it was coming, I would’ve been ready. But as is often the case, life caught me unprepared. As I stood in personal property with my meager belongings spewed from my property box, the C/O impatiently prodded me to choose the few items I was allowed to bring with me. One change of undergarments, a few hygiene items, a Bible, the legal documents needed for my hearing. That’s it, and don’t try to sneak anything past him. In prison, the C/O who controls property holds huge sway. He can make a guy’s bit extremely difficult; it’s a very bad idea to piss him off.
In my flustered, frantic haste to grab what I needed/what I was allowed to have, I was dumbfounded as to what to expect since this was my very first court writ. I didn’t know my property would be housed at my home joint, and I would be shipped to an institution closer to the courthouse for my hearing. Once the court was done with me, I’d be shipped back. At a minimum, the whole thing would be a two-week round trip. Without fully understanding the ramifications, I simply grabbed what was at the front of my box and moved along. It wasn’t until I was sitting in a new joint, with a new cellie, that I realized I was wearing state whites and that my only change of clothes was also produced by the state.

All the state-issued clothes given to inmates are made by inmates. This means that a sub-par work force is fashioning items using low-quality materials. I wish I could say something nicer about the skills of my fellow inmates, but I prefer to be honest. My gravest concern was the boxer shorts. The material was thin and would rip quite easily. What’s more, the seam on the back of the state-issued boxer shorts ran directly along the crack of one’s ass. Why is this important? Because the faulty design meant that any stretching, squatting, or simply sitting down would put stress on the seam. Perhaps it was just my ample posterior, but whenever I wore state boxers, it was only a matter of time before they betrayed me by splitting wide open right along that backside seam.

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http://www.findlaci2003.us

As my lousy luck would have it, the only two pairs of boxers I had with me on the writ had been in my possession for a while. They had suffered more than their fair share of strain. One afternoon before the end of the first week, I heard a distinctive tearing sound as I was climbing into the top bunk. I knew I’d torn myself an unnecessary ventilation hole in my boxers.
It was only a few days later that I suddenly awoke in a panic from a deep sleep, wearing my remaining pair of intact boxers, and suffering from a badly brimming bladder. I thrust myself into a sitting position and scrambled to the end of the bed, trying to get to the toilet before I wet myself. My desperate need to pee, the fact that I hadn’t spent any time on a top bunk in years, the new and unusual cell configuration, and my rapid maneuvering in the dark all culminated in my painful downfall.

Speedballing as I was, I flung my leg over the foot-rail and allowed momentum to carry me forward to land on the next rail down before stepping safely to the floor. That was the plan. What actually happened, though, was that my right foot missed the middle foot rail and the bottom half of my left leg slid under the top rail, while the rest of my torso kept on going. I was left dangling upside-down in mid-air with all of my two hundred plus pounds pulling at the crook of my knee. I felt an excruciating hot tearing and yelped out in pain, but a dozen other injustices also screamed out for attention and made my cry of anguish die in my throat. My head hit the sink. My shoulder, back, bicep, forearm, ribs, hip, and butt all collided against the metal bed with plenty of force. My boxer shorts tore nearly in half. Extricating myself from the rack was a noisy nightmare that sent flares of fresh hurt flashing out to various coordinates on my injured frame. It’s a minor miracle that I didn’t drench myself in urine.

icswaco.com
icswaco.com

I’ve never been particularly vain, but my parents did instill in me a sense of self-worth, and the notion that I should take pride in my appearance. It may just be that they didn’t want their kid being the slovenly, stinky kid on the playground. Whatever their intentions, the lesson stuck, and I try to be presentable even if it’s just other inmates and C/Os who will see me. Thanks to this mindset, as the morning came for me to board the transfer bus and head back to my home joint, I was feeling highly embarrassed. I was also quite frightened.

My nocturnal mishap had left bruises tattooed all over my body, and I knew I would be strip-searched. The back of my left leg was one huge multi-hued contusion that ran unbroken from mid-calf to mid-thigh and made it impossible for me to walk without a limp. My thighs, calves, shoulders, back, butt cheeks, and arms were all spotted with a scandalous number of scrapes and bruises. There was also a bulging goose egg just left of center on the back of my head. All of this was glaring evidence of some kind of struggle or confrontation, and I wasn’t confident that a nosy C/O would believe my struggle had been with my bed and not another inmate. The fear that I’d be accused of fighting and thrown into Seg indefinitely under investigation was a dim and secondary concern.
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At this point, I’d been down long enough that I was more or less used to stripping naked, so that’s not what I was embarrassed about. My embarrassment, and primary concern, was that my appearance would give the C/O who was staring at my nude flesh and fondling my discarded clothes a low opinion of me. Not only of me, but also of my parents, for having raised a child who would so brazenly waltz around wearing boxers in such a sad state of disrepair. I would’ve preferred the anonymous officer to think I had been fighting, or even that I’d been assaulted, since all my injuries were on the back of my body and my boxers were practically shredded. But I didn’t want him to think I was a sloppy mess without enough self-respect or pride to wear appropriately dignified and proper undergarments.

When my time came, I stepped forward to the appointed spot. There were two men on my right and three on my left, each performing the same strip-tease for their respective C/Os. Over a hundred guys were lined up behind us, all waiting their turn. I handed over my shoes and socks, stripped off my banana suit and T-shirt and passed them to the C/O. Finally I removed my boxers and sheepishly pressed them into the officer’s latex-gloved palm. Following his prompts, I opened my mouth and pulled my lips back so he could see under them, ran my hands through my hair, raised my arms to reveal my armpits, and lifted my privates skyward so he could take a peek beneath them. Then came the dreaded spin. With my back finally fully revealed to him, I heard a sharp intake of air and a muffled, “Damn…” as a mumbled exclamation of shock. There was a pause that felt like a tiny eternity, then the piece de resistance: I had to bend at the waist, spread my butt cheeks and cough.

flickr.com
flickr.com

I was facing him again as he rifled through my clothing. My pathetic boxers were frisked first, and the C/O’s hand went right through the incriminating hole. A brief (no pun intended) shadow of perplexity crossed his face, and he met my eyes for a moment before snorting derisively and tossing the battered boxers at me. After covering my nakedness, I actually felt more shame, as my torn shorts allowed a brisk breeze to caress my undercarriage while I waited for the rest of my clothes to be cleared for wearing.

Once I was dressed and striding to the transfer bus, I didn’t have an ounce of confidence remaining. I worried which of my fellow prisoners had seen my shame—and by that I don’t mean my nudity, but my destroyed boxers. Distantly I wondered about the competence of a C/O who would let a guy as bruised and torn as me just walk on by. Mostly, though, I prayed that I might catch a break and get a decent C/O at my home joint who would let me shower after my long bus ride. I daydreamed about sliding my freshly cleaned legs into some pristine boxers, positioning them on my hips where they’d protect my package and project to the world a certain confidence and pride. I had a torturous bus ride ahead of me—upwards of seven hours, chained to a stranger. But a guy could dream.

Choke

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It was about nine months after my arrest date, and I was still sitting in county, fighting my case. I’d already spent a Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthday separated from the world – the first of many such separations – but to be honest, it wasn’t that bad. My mental anguish – in the form of regrets about the past, and fears and doubts about my future – wasn’t wonderful. But beyond that, living life locked up was manageable. I quickly got the hang of it. Man is nothing if not adaptable.

www.freedigitalphotos.net
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

I’d made at least one good friend during that period. This is the story of when he strangled me into unconsciousness.
Timmy was a good guy under enormous stress. He’d been arrested for murdering his wife, but his assertions of innocence fell largely on deaf ears. Timmy theorized that several police officers, working in tandem to cover up their accidental shooting of his wife, systematically murdered her. After examining every crime-scene photograph, police report, witness statement, ballistics report, medical examiner’s report and other related documents, I was inclined to believe him. Timmy was trapped in a nightmare I couldn’t imagine facing. I quickly became his confidant and support system. It was a difficult role, because I had my own worries, but I believed in his innocence. I still do. Unfortunately, to the world at large he was just another violent black man who’d taken a domestic dispute too far. Nobody cared.

Timmy and I were sitting in his cell. Timmy was delivering a diatribe while I sat quietly and seethed. He was ranting about why young black men brag and exaggerate their sexual prowess. His premise was that because many of them were born into poverty and the inner-city ghetto life, the only thing they could assert with any pride was that they were great Lotharios. Timmy’s sweeping statements offended me because he passed them off as fact, but I knew it couldn’t be true of all young black guys. Maybe some of them who lead lives like that wind up in prison, but not all. Unfortunately, having grown up in a white middle-class household, I didn’t have a racial, cultural, or socioeconomical leg to stand on. So I sat in silence and became more incensed. There was actually a different and deeper cause of my inexhaustible ire.

One of my fellow prisoners, Jaymo, a young black man, had only moments before assured me that if he was out there he would have no problem convincing my wife to sleep with him. The term “sleep with” is mine, whereas Jaymo was much more explicit in his description of how and what he would do to her. Using terms and imagery as graphic you might imagine, he described precisely how he would violate her. According to Jaymo, it would be completely consensual and entirely possible because his “game” with the ladies was so potent and his sexual prowess undeniable.

www.freedigitalphotos.net
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Jaymo actually believed this. He also wasn’t saying it to offend me or get under my skin. In his mind, these were simply the facts. I was still married at the time, still hopeful that our marriage could survive all my lies and crimes. I was also naïve enough to think that the years of my inevitable prison sentence wouldn’t exceed single digits. The subject of my beloved wife was a sensitive one, and I was very protective of her. I wanted to beat Jaymo for what he said about her. I wanted to beat him bloody. I felt it was what he deserved.

Timmy had been listening and easily identified my escalating anger. He stepped in to literally pull me out of the situation. That’s how I ended up sitting on the steel toilet in Timmy’s cell while he reclined on his slab and opined about the inner-workings of the young African American mind. The problem was that, to me, it felt like Timmy was defending Jaymo’s offensive and lewd remarks. That’s not technically what he was doing, but I was angry and not thinking soundly, so that’s how it felt. This only made me more irate, and I lashed out.

“You want to let him talk about your wife like that, fine, she probably liked that kind of stuff. Your wife is gone, so it doesn’t matter anymore, but my wife is still alive. Don’t tell me how to defend her. You did a shit job of protecting yours.” My remarks were callous, illogical, unfair and untrue. Even as I stormed from his cell in a huff, I felt small and petty. I felt like the world’s most gargantuan asshole.

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I scurried next door to my cell with all the dignity of a fleeing rat or cockroach. Standing in the center of my cell, I chuffed out a loud sigh filled with frustration, regret, and shame. The sound of a shower shoe scuffing on the concrete made me turn around. Timmy stood at the threshold of my cell. I opened my mouth to speak, but he attacked before I could say anything.

Timmy’s face was blank. If anger was driving him, it was a deep and abiding emotion, not a momentary flourish. He covered the four feet between us in a flash. He was wearing a thermal underwear long-sleeve top, and as he moved toward me he pulled his right arm out of its sleeve and held the cuff in his left hand, with the rest of the material stretched free from his body. He wrapped this material around my neck twice and pulled it taut. The entire maneuver was one fluid motion and took a fraction of a second; Timmy was as swift, smooth, and silent as a ninja. I didn’t even feel fear, panic, or wonder. My world went black, and I was gone.

I awoke on the floor of my cell, alone. My skull felt two sizes too big and throbbed painfully. Blood pounded in my ears. There was no way for me to know how long I’d been unconscious, but I was sure it hadn’t been long – seconds, rather than minutes. A couple of guys from the deck stood outside the bars of my cell, watching me. Once they saw I wasn’t dead, they turned their attention back to the communal TV. Apparently, whatever was showing there was far more interesting.

My disorientation was dissolving in increments. I touched my neck, which felt raw and chafed. My esophagus was as dry as the Sahara. Moving my hand upward, I felt a lump on the side of my head, just above my right ear, which was extremely tender and painful to touch. Considering my position on the floor, I figured that I’d probably knocked my head on the toilet as I crumpled. My legs were as wobbly and unsure as Bambi’s on ice, but I managed to stand on them long enough to plop down onto my bunk. I sat there for a long time as equilibrium ebbed back into my life.

It was several hours before I approached some semblance of normalcy. During that time, everything seemed more intense – sounds were too loud, lights too bright, sense of touch overly sensitive. My thoughts were like a box of puzzle pieces, and I couldn’t find any edges to make them begin to resemble anything reasonable. My brain was trying to reject the notion that the incident had happened at all.

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The idea that my buddy had choked me into darkness seemed impossibly absurd, but the physical evidence was impossible to refute. Perhaps it was the lapse in oxygenated blood to my brain, but a loopy logic kept circling back to the conclusion that I had gotten what I’d deserved. Only moments before Timmy’s attack, I’d wanted to similarly assault Jaymo for disparaging my wife. How then could I blame Timmy for reacting as he did when I questioned his wife’s virtue and his love for her? The easiest answer that I found was: I couldn’t.

Eventually I walked back into Timmy’s cell and sat on his toilet once more. The four other guys who shared the pod with us were collectively holding their breath in anticipation of more violence. Instead, Timmy and I sat in silence for a long time. When our eyes finally met, the shame and regret I saw in his eyes mirrored my own sentiments.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Yeah,” was his pained response. An uncomfortable quiet stretched between us awhile. Finally, Timmy began to speak stilted words of prayer. I joined in, and we traded back and forth to seek forgiveness, comfort, mercy, and strength to persevere. And, as only the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit can achieve, our differences were reconciled.

Timmy and I never again spoke of the incident, but I never forgot how quickly violence could erupt within the crucible of confinement, even between friends. It was a lesson I would see reenacted countless times over the years. Despite his propensity for violence, I still believe Timmy is innocent of the murder of his wife. The jury disagreed with me, as he was sentenced to 85 years in prison. Without a positive response to his appeals, Timmy is scheduled to be released sometime around his 120th birthday. The son he had with his late wife has become another statistic in the foster care system.
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Search and Seizure

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Wade’s legs waggled and writhed while the heels of his boots bounced against the floor. His arms flailed and flopped, making slapping noises against the concrete. Moaning noises were punctuated by occasional grunts as his entire body shimmied and bucked. Seeing Wade afflicted like that, I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing. My fist covered my mouth to conceal my grin.

White-shirt-and-blue-shirt-officersShakedown Artist
C/O Prader was a consummate shakedown artist, and he’d been terrorizing the cell house for weeks. As the afternoon shift change approached, the entire atmosphere of the building changed to one of high alert as every inmate waited to see if (please, oh please, oh please) Prader would be absent. Perhaps he would take a vacation or be assigned to a different building in the prison compound. Robocops like Prader don’t take vacations, and he always showed up just as regularly and regimented as a caffeine fiend’s first jolt of java in the morning. He arrived with his stoop-shouldered gambol on legs as limber as toothpicks and wearing a mustache that was the anemic twin to Tom Selleck’s signature facial flourish. Prader’s musty body odor was overpowering as he walked the hallways smelling of mothballs and burnt birthday candle wax.

For any convict who has been locked up for a while, shakedowns are par for the course. Many come to think of it as a kind of cat and mouse game. The authority figures are well aware that inmates are in possession of illegal items, but it’s their job to prove it by finding them. A convict’s duty is to stay one step ahead of them. In a max or medium-max, moving illicit materials around to duck a shakedown can be difficult if not impossible at times. Prader’s reign, however, was in a lower security facility where inmates could move through the hallways and dayroom more freely, so smuggling contraband came more easily. The question became: what do I hide?

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Unpredictable
What made Prader’s searches and seizures so despicable, feared, and insidious was the fact that he was unpredictable. One never knew what he might take. The obvious illegal items, of course, could be hidden or concealed on one’s person because when Prader came to shakedown, he didn’t pat down the inmates as they left the cell. But what about the rest? Prader was taking electronic items like TVs, beard trimmers, and hot pots with the justification that he thought they looked scratched or marked as if someone had buffed out another inmate’s ID number and carved their own in. Even when confronted with the contract and proof provided by the personal property office that the item in question was in fact legit, Prader took it anyway and made the inmate jump through hoops to get it back. Prader took clothes, bowls, cups, utensils, and food—all of which were obtained legally through commissary. Sometimes he would make up some bogus excuse, but for the most part his reasoning was simply “because I can.”

For his own safety it’s probably for the best that Prader wasn’t at a max joint because he would’ve been a likely candidate to be a victim of a staff assault. He got away with his bullying tactics because the privileges afforded inmates at a lower security facility served to keep the population pacified. Acting out violently is the best and quickest way to get transferred to a joint where you’re locked behind a door all day. With this as the dynamic, Prader seized property with impunity and convicts learned to adjust and avoid.

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Daily Ritual
Once it was confirmed that Prader was, in fact, working, convicts would collect their contraband and shuttle it around to a safer spot. Since it was impossible to know who would be shookdown, everything became a calculated risk. If a cell was searched the night before, it was considered safe. Generally speaking, unless the occupants of a cell gave Prader a reason to search them again—a reason such as pissing him off—a shakedown once per month was customary. The beginning of the month was rough because every cell was fair game. The end of the month could be dangerous because Prader was known to circle back on cells randomly after the 25th of the month. Prader performed his shakedowns when the bulk of the building’s occupants were at chow. Before that, while the house was full, he usually had other duties to perform. When Prader shuffled up to my neighbor’s door nearly ninety minutes earlier than was usual and announced that they had to get out so he could shakedown, he caught them completely off guard and with their proverbial pants around their metaphorical ankles.

Panic
The cell held three men, and one of them, Art, exited with a look on his face that was three parts fear and two parts guilt. Both of his cellies were gone on their work assignments, and Art looked around in a panic, frantically seeking someone to tell him what to do. Not only had Prader caught him unaware by coming early, but apparently since their cell had been shookdown only one week prior, they felt they were safe and so they had several other inmate’s belongings secured in their cell. If/when Prader found the large stash hidden haphazardly under the bed and behind a property box, it would be a fiasco. All three occupants of the cell would almost certainly be hauled to Seg, and anyone who could be even tenuously linked to any of the illegal property would face severe penalties. In this case, it would’ve been better (meaning a lesser punishment would have been applied) to have been caught with an unauthorized item rather than being caught trying to conceal that item.

Art was sick. He had lost some of the color in his face—a very noticeable thing for a Latino guy as dark-toned as he was. I was in the hallway being nosy. I sympathized with my neighbors, but that didn’t mean I’d forgo a front row seat to the drama about to unfold.

“What am I supposed to do?” Art sounded terribly desperate as he asked the assembly of fellow lookyloos like myself. He got only a gaggle of shrugged shoulders and a grunted chorus of “I don’t know, man.” Art let out a low, pained moan before spinning on his heels and rushing toward the dayroom. Perhaps he was going to seek assistance from others, or maybe he was just trying to distance himself from the impending debacle in his cell. The guy standing next to me broke off from our impromptu group and ran to intercept Art. After imparting some hushed wisdom, the two of them picked up the pace even more toward the dayroom. With my curiosity piqued, I hustled after them.

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Confederate
By the time I caught up to Art, he had already found his accomplice and was huddled in the corner with him. Wade was an annoying clown, an unabashed fool, and a loudmouthed idiot. He was a sad indictment of the inner-city ghetto environment, the gang lifestyle, the public education system, the prison system, and perhaps America as a whole. Wade was a sixtyish black man with a head full of gray hair who still spoke and behaved like he was a hot-headed, ignorant, and uneducated sixteen-year-old gangbanger with something to prove to the world and not a jot of sense in his head. However, history has shown that even a fool can serve his purpose.

Floundering Fool
The two of them were hunched over with Art’s arm around Wade’s shoulders and their foreheads nearly touching as they conferred. It looked like Art was spilling all the words into Wade’s ear while Wade merely nodded his head vigorously. With a final curt nod, Wade clapped Art on the chest reassuringly and made a beeline toward where I stood just inside the dayroom and next to the entry to the hallway down which Prader was plying his tyrannical trade.

For a brief instant, I thought that Art had somehow convinced or cajoled Wade into attacking Prader, but then Wade suddenly stumbled into a stutter-step, bent in half at the waist, clutched at his chest and upper arm, (something which is more closely associated with a heart attack, I believe, but what do I know?) before finally crashing in a mess on the floor right in front of the bubble and commencing his flopping and floundering routine. From across the dayroom, Art called out, “He’s having a seizure!”

Success
C/O Gilbert was the bubble officer and he went from half asleep to instantly alert but decidedly discombobulated. He stood up quickly then sat down, stood up partway, then collapsed to his seat. Third time was the charm and Gilbert stayed on his feet, pointing at Wade wriggling on the ground. Gilbert’s mouth was opening and closing but only making confused and ineffectual chuffing noises as he looked around in all directions for some assistance of direction. “Are you alright?” Gilbert finally managed to ask—arguably the most dimwitted query he could’ve conjured. In response, Wade moaned and grunted louder as he flailed and seized more violently. I stifled my laughter so as not to wreck their ruse. “Call a Code!” Art hollered from his corner hiding place, throwing his voice with all the expertise of an abysmal ventriloquist. C/O Gilbert seized on the idea and finally sprang into action.

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“Code three! Code three!” His voice was shaky with panic and lacking authority as he called it into his radio, but it produced the desired effect. Code three is the designation for a medical emergency. Gilbert added the cell house number and the location as the dayroom, and Prader burst from Art’s cell in six seconds flat, moving in his signature hunchbacked fashion on quick, stiff legs to the location of the crisis. Thanks to Wade’s diversion, Prader hadn’t spent more than three minutes inside the cell and hadn’t found anything. Prader leaned over Wade and asked if Wade could hear him, if he was okay. Wade’s noisemaking increased once more, and it sounded suspiciously like he was choking back chuckles.

Conclusion
C/Os and lieutenants arrived in droves followed shortly by a trio of nurses who gathered Wade’s quieted form and rolled him away on a stretcher. After spending a large chunk of the night writing an incident report detailing all of his actions during the medical emergency, C/O Prader merely wandered down the hall and provided my neighbors with their Photostat copy of a shakedown slip which reported that the C/O had searched their cell and found nothing.

 

In defense to his legitimate history of seizures, Wade was held in Healthcare for observation overnight before being released back to the building the next day. His triumphant return was met with lots of laughs and high-fives all around. When Prader showed up for the evening he was sure to check on Wade to ask about his health and well-being. Two hours later, Prader arrived at Wade’s door again, this time for a shakedown. There was nothing for Prader to find because Wade and his cellies had already stashed all their contraband in Art’s cell, and so the cat and mouse game continued.//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/adsbygoogle.js

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Hot Foot

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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?”
“Yeah. Scutt.”
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?”
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“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.
beansI 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.

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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.

Perpectives

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I was rushing to get to my work assignment. I wasn’t running late, but I preferred arriving early so that I could take a few moments to get organized and prepared for the day’s tasks. It was a gray day with big fluffy snowflakes fluttering to earth like butterflies on broken wings. Each flake added itself to the pristine scene of freshly fallen snow that covered the ground and made the world seem new, clean, and full of possibility. My sense of haste abated then evaporated as I witnessed my Creator’s hand at work.

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Stark Beauty
Just beyond the perimeter fence, trees reached to the bleak sky with skeletal limbs. Each appendage was dusted ever so delicately with a white covering as if some cosmic baker had been a bit overzealous with the flour. The serene scene was desolate but gorgeous—a post-apocalyptic postcard. Temperatures were chilly but not uncomfortable, and there wasn’t a whiff of wind. With snow floating all around, I was elated, lifted from the dire nature of my confines and the dreariness of my thoughts. I was compelled to praise and give thanks to the architect of all I saw before me.

“I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice to worship you…” The words of the old song came to me once more as they often did, words that I’ve carried from my youth. They sprang forth from my ebullient heart as it overflowed with humble gratitude for all of my abundant blessings. “Oh, my soul, rejoice. Take joy, my King, in what you hear. May it be a sweet, sweet sound in your ear.” The words carried my feet and my uplifted spirit to the door of the building where I worked. I entered with a smile on my face and joy of the Lord deep down in my heart.

Counterpoint
Good morning, beautiful day today,” I said as soon as I got in the room. My supervisor hacked out a harsh scoffing laugh at my greeting.

photo by dan www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by dan
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

“Yeah, right,” was the uenthused and sarcastic rely. “All that snow. And it’s too cold. I can’t wait for spring to get her already.” Ms. Griss was a little old lady in her mid-sixties with glasses and a gray/blond perm curled atop her head. She had a slow, deliberate way of moving and speaking, and usually had a more upbeat demeanor. It was December, and this was only the second snowfall of the season—the first snow significant enough to actually stick around rather than immediately melting. I thought to bite my tongue, but my effulgent emotions couldn’t be contained.

“Oh, no, no. It’s beautiful out there. I can see the handiwork of our Creator on display.” Her face twisted and scrunched into a disbelieving scowl as she looked up from her early morning document collating. I smiled warmly, and she seemed to be examining me, her eyes searching for some chink in my sincerity. Finding none, her age-lined lips parted and turned upward in a reluctant smile. This time when she laughed it wasn’t so harsh.

“I suppose so. I can accept that.” It was a begrudging concession, and it made me wish I could endow her with the thrilling intensity of my exuberant joy. Instead Ms. Griss turned back to her paperwork and I went to my workstation.

I’ve long felt that, to some degree, one’s outlook determines one’s outcome. Recognizing the effortless beauty of God’s design and creation, in whatever meager way you can manage, or in whatever drab circumstances you find yourself in, can’t help but point toward a hope-filled outcome. And hope is a good thing.
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