The Fastidious Squirrel

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This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on Amazon.com now.
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Even before I saw him in action and discovered his proclivities for food storage, he first reminded me of a nerdy rodent in a children’s cartoon: large, round eyes encased in over-sized glasses, rounded pouches for cheeks apparently designed for smuggling, and an overbite and front choppers custom-made for cracking nuts. When I first laid eyes on him he was sitting across from me at the table in the chow hall. I know it’s not polite to stare, but I couldn’t help myself.

pomadeThe meal was sloppy joe with hash brown potatoes, a bun, mixed vegetables, and canned peaches. A disposable, plastic Spork is the universal utensil provided on each tray, but it’s the first thing the man set aside with a persnickety, pinched-face show of disdain. Reaching into the depths of his ancient jean jacket, he pulled out a cloth napkin with a plastic fork, spoon, and knife set wrapped inside. The utensil set had once been available on commissary ages ago, so it’s likely he had been using that same set for years. The napkin was a creation all his own, probably fashioned from some sheet or pillowcase.

Next, he pulled from his jacket a small container that I recognized as having once held pomade, untwisted the top, and gave the inside a good sniff. After it passed the smell test, he spooned the mixed vegetables into it and closed the lid. He then stowed it into an unseen pocket, only to pull out another container—this one flat and round, and which had once contained cheese spread. The sniffing and storing process was repeated. This time the potatoes vanished into his special coat before his hand returned with another squat container identical to the one he’d used for the mixed veggies.

Using his fork this time, he gathered all the meat from the runny sloppy joe, straining it so he got as little of the excess juice as possible into his plastic smuggling conveyance. Moving as though he were dealing with some dangerous or combustible substance, he slowly shuttled each portion with extreme caution to ensure he wouldn’t spill or splash a single drop against the outside of the container. Even though it was pristine, he wiped the napkin around the lip and outside of the sloppy joe container before spinning the lid on with precise, practiced movements of his long, slim fingers—a violinist’s fingers. With the meat safely secured, a re-sealable plastic bag that had been sold with tortilla shells in it appeared as if by magic, and into the folds of his coat went his bun, leaving no distinguishable sign or telltale bulge to betray its presence.

Having all his precious “nuts” safely saved, this fastidious squirrel set upon the canned peaches with an economy of movement that was as measured and regular as a metronome, which lent a hypnotic and mesmerizing quality to it. His left hand held the knife, and he used the tool to cull a single piece of peach from the pile. Once he had one singled out, the fork in his right hand speared it and placed it into his mouth. He chewed the minuscule morsel exactly five times—no more, no less—before swallowing and beginning the process again. Cull, spear, chew. Cull, spear, chew. Twenty-seven times, without deviation in motion or tempo, until he’d cleared his tray of its final scrap of sustenance.

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With a careful, prissy daintiness, he placed the fork, knife, and spoon crosswise on the tray and poured a slow trickle of water from his cup across them. Then, taking them into his hand, he scrubbed each of them individually before a final rinse of both hands and utensils that exhausted the contents of his cup. He used his bootleg napkin to dry the three items thoroughly and to wipe each finger one at a time along with his palms, the back of his hands, wrists, and halfway up his forearms. Since the cloth was damp from drying utensils and limbs, it was his lips, chin, and the area immediately around his mouth that next received its attention until he was satisfied that he had fully and properly cleansed himself. Once he was satisfied, the utensils were re-wrapped in the napkin and returned to their accustomed spot within his spacious coat, along with the rest of the goodies he’d scrounged to take back and dress up a naked noodle.

I’ve seen guys bring a burger or piece of chicken back to put with a noodle, but this was much more extensive. He had the operation down to a science. His precision and economy of motion spoke to years of experience, and as he appeared to be somewhere in his sixties, I couldn’t help wondering how long he’d been doing his prison-squirrel routine—and how much longer he’d be doing it.

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Lunch and a Show

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

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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.

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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.

pepper_spray_cop_DonkeyHotey_Flickr_comm_okThe 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.

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image by jesadaphorn
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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.

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.

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photo by Rosemary Ratcliff
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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.

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photo by chrisroll
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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”
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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.

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.

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photo by Idea go
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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.

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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.

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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.

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http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

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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photo by aopsan
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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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photo by stockimages
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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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image by Ohmmy3d
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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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photo by Keerati
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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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photo by vectorolie
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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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