Porcupine Chicken

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It doesn’t matter who a person is or how much money he may have on the books, there will come a time in prison when his stomach’s in his back and he’s feening for just about anything to quell his hunger. It may be because commissary is so far behind schedule that he hasn’t hit store in over a month, and all that’s left in his box is clothes and hygiene. It could also be because he’s in the process of a transfer from one joint to another, and his property hasn’t caught up with him yet—a common occurrence and cause of stress. Either way, it results in the same thing: fierce hunger. It’s a constant presence, always pestering and nagging. As the hour approaches for the next chow, minutes drag themselves out as if time itself has a personal vendetta against inmates.

Sometimes, even after every morsel, scrap, and crumb of food is devoured at chow time, it never satisfies. At the time, we’d been enduring a steady diet of nothing but slickmeat sandwiches along with a snack-size bag of chips and an apple, orange, or brownie. This is a reasonable portion for a child’s lunch, but a grown man needs something more substantial—and slickmeat shouldn’t be inflicted upon anyone.

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On a diet consisting solely of chow hall food, maintaining any kind of workout regimen is impossible. All one can do is lie down and try to burn as few calories as possible, which helps, mostly. Still, the yearning for sustenance comes: it’s as inevitable as death and taxes. Hopefully, one’s paltry portion can keep the need to feed at bay for a few hours rather than a handful of minutes. Unfortunately, slickmeat is more likely to turn the stomach than satisfy it. First, the smell has to be surmounted, then the texture, followed closely by the actual taste. It’s a feat just to choke this stuff down, no matter how famished a person is or how badly hunger is tearing at his gut. After the disappointing lunch comes hours of anticipation and hope for something more substantial, even tasty.

chiliAfter a particularly brutal hiatus between meals, during which my stomach gnawed on itself until I felt like it was chewing at my spine, I went bounding from my cell like I had springs in my heels. Running on the walk would’ve gotten me booked, but I stretched my long legs to their max and moved faster than an average trot to ensure I’d get a spot near the front of the line. My belly ached for the forthcoming food; my pulse quickened for it. I shuffled from foot to foot, ready to be on the move, angry and frustrated at the stragglers taking their time and dragging their feet to line it up and pair it up. My stomach had no patience for their lazing. Finally—after what was maybe a minute and a half tops, but which felt like a tiny eternity—we headed to the chow hall. I couldn’t get there fast enough.

As soon as I entered the chow hall, my nostrils flared with pleasure at the warm smell of chicken, and saliva flooded my mouth in involuntary anticipation. A lurching growl grumbled in my abdomen, and though it sounded like an angry cur, the noise was joyful—food was on its way! I’m not sure what the day’s meal was—either chicken stir-fry, chicken-a-la-king, chicken soup, or chicken stew. They’re all basically the same assortment of frozen vegetables and pieces of chicken bathed in a sauce that varies in color from lemon yellow to muddy brown. It definitely wasn’t the dish known as Mexican stew because, while it may contain the same ingredients, it’s dark red (and also vaguely racist, I think).

Whatever the dish was, it came on a bed of rice along with a dinner roll and pat of butter. Steam rose from the tray, a rare occasion since chow hall food is mostly lukewarm at best. Logic and experience dictated that I eat it slowly, let it cool for a moment and check for bones, but it was all I could do to make it to the table without shoveling the tan slop down my gullet. Neither logic nor experience could stand in the face of my extreme hunger.

A spoonful, chew twice, swallow. Repeat.

A dim voice in the back of my mind urged me to slow down, to chew more, to make the food last longer, but it was wasting its proverbial breath. My fourth convulsive swallow posed a problem, as a chicken bone as sharp as a splinter lodged itself into my throat and dug securely into the soft wet flesh. My hunger instinct dictated that I just force the whole thing down, but I was able to cut that impetus off quickly. I tried to regurgitate the partially-swallowed offending agent. I coughed and made choking noises, but I only felt the bone dig in deeper.

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Breathing through my mouth and around the obstruction became difficult, making an unnatural panic leap within me. Horrible thoughts of a bloody end to my situation careened through my mind. I sat straight and tall in my seat and tried to calm myself. Then everyone at my table watched as I carefully, delicately, reached the index finger and thumb of my right hand deep into the tunnel of my gullet to pull out a cluster of bone and cartilage the size of a Ping-Pong ball. It had enough spiny offshoots to rival the proudest of porcupines. Revulsion rippled my middle as I inspected my would-be killer and noticed a speck of blood that had been pricked from the intimacy of my throat.

My voracious appetite had evaporated, but my body’s need for fuel remained. As I stared at what remained of the meal that had almost been my demise, conflict raged within me. I knew full well that I had a long night ahead with no prospect of food. A tentative swallow of lukewarm water informed me that my ravaged throat couldn’t take much more abuse.

Images of a painful, bloody, gurgling, choking death tickled my mind and turned my stomach, but I closed my eyes against them (which didn’t help) and teased another trickle of water past my wound (which hurt like hell). Opening my eyes, I glared at the wad of spiked chicken with an intense hatred and found the resolve to finish my food. I refused to let the porcupine chicken defeat me. So, after depositing the disgusting and dangerous clump on the edge of my tray, I inspected each bite carefully before placing it gingerly on my tongue, chewing it thoroughly, and forcing it down my injured esophagus.

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Brady’s Birdcage Tale

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My buddy Brady had both done time in The Birdcage, so when the topic came up, we began swapping stories in a strange and twisted competition to see who had witnessed the most disturbing thing during his tenure in the infamously violent maximum security cell house. Eventually I had to concede victory to him. When Brady first recounted his story to me, his eyes took on a glassy, far-off look and his skin paled noticeably, as if he was reliving what he’d seen. Brady’s tale was especially frightening to him because it happened the first week he was in prison. It set the tone for his bit, as it was the first of many horrific experiences that let him know that prison could be a terrifying place.

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He had been lying on his bunk, staring at the wall and bored out of his mind, and was ready to drift into a doze for the third time that morning. Days seem interminable in The Birdcage, so when it happened, it was a welcome change—something to focus on and talk about with his cellie. There was a commotion on the deck that was louder than the usual constant drone of talking and yelling. The noise quickly rippled and amplified throughout the spacious enclosure, and both Brady and his cellie looked out onto the gallery to see what it was all about. The show was only just starting.

A lieutenant and several C/Os had rushed to a cell, and the loo was already cuffing up one inmate through the chuck hole. Once the door was opened and the offender walked out, Brady saw that the guy was huge—a hulking gorilla standing in only his boxers, his heaving chest and rippled muscles accentuating his back and arms. If the guy hadn’t been allowing the authority figures to lead him away, it was unlikely they could have contained or controlled him on their own. His proportions were monstrous. As they led him off, he had something to announce to his cellie, who was still sequestered in the cell, and to the entire Birdcage. It sounded like bragging, taunting, and threatening all in one.

Yeah, that’s right, I’ma get me a new cellie! After running up in that one, I wore his ass out!”

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Being new to prison, Brady was not entirely familiar with the slang, but was pretty sure he understood what this meant. Once the first inmate was gone, two C/Os were left behind to contend with the remaining inmate. One C/O looked sick, like he was on the verge of vomiting, and the other’s face was a picture of fear and disgust.

The second inmate finally appeared in the cell doorway. He was a pudgy white kid, and his baby face was obviously streaked with tears and snot. He moved very gingerly—each breath seemed to hurt, let alone each step. His shirt was torn at the neck and hung down, exposing one nipple, which appeared far more embarrassing than it had to. The guy was trying feebly to hold his ripped clothing up to cover his nudity. The nauseous C/O instructed him to let it go, and the shirt flapped open to expose him again. The C/O managed to look guilty himself as he handcuffed the pudgy guy, but he manacled the cuffs in front of him rather than the customary, regulation method of cuffing an inmate’s hands behind his back. The same C/O placed a helping hand on the inmate’s shoulder and assisted him as he painfully shuffled forward in only his boxers and damaged t-shirt. The yelling from inmates filled the expanse of The Birdcage with a cacophony of callous insanity, and the victim was slowly escorted out.

The other C/O had disappeared inside the cell, but remained there only briefly before emerging with a dark gray woolen blanket. He draped it over the inmate’s shoulders before grasping the inmate’s other shoulder and helping him along. Before the blanket was put into place, Brady saw a dark and substantial splotch of blood on the back of the inmate’s boxers, and everything that he’d seen and heard up to that point suddenly crystallized into a disgustingly real and frightening portrait of prison life. The strong often take from the weak, and it’s not only commissary items that are being taken.

Despite the dreary, intense boredom that The Birdcage breeds, Brady said that he and his cellie returned to their positions of repose on their respective bunks. They never once discussed the incident.

A Despicable Reflex

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I did not know this man; I had never laid eyes on him before he entered the visiting room. He walked past the table where I sat with my visitor and gave me a harsh glare full of meanness—that hard prison stare that many guys develop shortly after their arrival. At first, this look is designed to intimidate and to ensure that people take you seriously, not try to take advantage of you. It’s a practiced facade put on just like any other accessory, but it becomes habit, until eventually it simply becomes who you are. We made eye contact for an instant, and I was pretty sure his mean look was not an act at all.

men-neck-tattoos2He seemed to be tailor-made for the cruelty his gaze denoted. His jaw was squared and hard-set, eyes dark and sunk into his skull, hiding under the shelf of his too-prominent Neanderthal brow. Tattoos blackened his neck with many more crawling up his arms. Scar tissue from past violent encounters smudged his cheeks, and his left ear had a sizable chunk missing, probably lost in a brawl of some kind. With a glance, I was fairly certain that I didn’t want to get on this guy’s bad side or run across him in a dark alley.

There was a woman visiting him, probably about his age—mid 30’s—and a girl in a wheelchair; not a regular wheelchair, but one with the seat much higher and a tall inclined back and straps to securely hold its occupant.

The man had to undo the straps before he could hold his daughter. Her arms and legs were spindles, but she wrapped them around him with a loving reflex and made a soft moaning sound that seemed happy to me. With her out of the chair, I could see she had the height of a healthy twelve-year-old girl, but there didn’t appear to be anything else healthy about her. She had a developmental disorder of some kind; her arms had never hefted even the lightest of burdens, and her legs had never bore her weight. Her head rolled around on her neck at times as if independent from the rest of her body, and her eyes had trouble focusing, lolling in their sockets like errant, mischievous marbles. It was clear that her developmental setback was not only a physical one, but mental as well.

This man who I did not know and had pegged as a killer of some kind, or at least a killer-in-waiting, lowered himself into the squat chair, wedging himself into the scant space between the seat and the table, and cradled his daughter in his lap with love and care. Her head snapped back unexpectedly and with frightening force, but he gently repositioned her so she could rest her cheek against his chest, just over his heart. He gathered the lifeless arms hanging at her sides and stowed them in her lap; her legs he pulled close to his body where they wouldn’t dangle haphazardly.

Thin blond hair held mostly atop her head by a lime green scrunchie had fallen over her forehead and eyes. With a hand I’d assumed was made for inflicting pain, he carefully brushed her bangs back in place and smiled down on his daughter, then spoke to her. Though it was clearly a struggle, her eyes fought to focus on her father and eventually achieved the feat. The smile he reserved for his daughter was full of warmth and unequivocal love—the opposite of the stony, uninviting gaze he’d shot my way just moments before. Leaning down, he kissed her forehead, then caressed her cheek while saying something I couldn’t hear from where I was spying. The smile that erupted across her face broke my heart with its open, honest, and unconditional love.

I had to look away, as I felt the burning sting of impending tears at the edges of my eyes and had to shut down the rising well of emotions threatening to flood my system. Shame, hot and angry, rushed over my cheeks and across my neck—shame for judging and pigeon-holing the man so quickly and easily, like a despicable reflex, and shame for interloping on their precious moment of intimacy.

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A Chemical Imbalance

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This week’s post is an excerpt from Candy and Blood. Available on Amazon.com now.

Blood and feces mixed in a sticky mess across the floor and against the thinly padded walls. The pungent aroma was beyond awful, and I couldn’t imagine bleach or disinfectant ever dispatching it entirely. I also couldn’t imagine why anyone would do this to himself.

===

Mental illness is an insidious and despicable thing. Often these issues are compounded by incarceration, as there is little premium placed on an inmate’s emotional or mental well-being. For the most part, we are housed and fed, but the state’s care for prisoners doesn’t extend much beyond that. What’s more is that many men with mental health issues are incarcerated because they committed crimes while not in a normal state of mind. In the past, these individuals may have found their way into a legitimate mental health facility, but now, more often than not, they’re put in prison. Then they’re largely expected to behave and are punished when they don’t, without much consideration for the fact of their mental illness. I believe that Renny’s actions would never be repeated, except perhaps by an individual who is suffering from a chemical imbalance in his brain.

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Renny was in an isolation cell in Healthcare. He had already proven to be erratic and a major danger to himself. The stitches holding the ragged incisions together began at his wrists and ran the length of his forearms. They were obvious evidence of his unstable nature. It was also the reason for his being in the isolation cell. These particular accommodations weren’t the typical isolation cell, however, but instead were outfitted to deal with the most extreme of circumstances. The walls were padded. It wasn’t plush enough to be luxurious but rather designed to make it at least very difficult, if not impossible, for an inmate to hurt himself by running into the walls or banging his head against them. The floor was concrete and slanted toward the center of the cell where a large drain gaped like an ominous, watchful eye.

Only one piece of furniture was in the cell, positioned right over the drain, and it looked more like a medieval torture device than it did a chair. There was a small square, thinly padded seat with a vinyl cover over it, and a similarly upholstered board ran vertically from the seat to serve as a backrest. Four slim boards all shot out from this central structure, and each had thick leather restraints attached to them. Renny was stripped naked and placed on the seat. His arm and legs were then strapped to each limb of the chair so that he was stretched into an X-shape. This was done for his own safety.

Renny looked like a psychotic. Perhaps he was. He bellowed, a sound filled with rage and frustration, his features twisted in a scowling sneer of defiance and hate. It is said that where there’s a will, there’s a way, and more often than not there’s truth in that aphorism.

Renny found a way to pull one arm free from its restraint, peeling his skin back in the process. This got his blood flowing, but he seemed to be unfazed by his wound, which must have been excruciating. That would only be the beginning of his self-inflicted bloodletting.

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Once he’d unfastened the rest of his limbs, Renny had full reign of his tiny six-foot square cell. He ranted and roared like a caricature of a madman, a stereotype brought to life, except that to see such insanity firsthand is unnerving on several levels. It makes the heart race with an initial tremor of fear that is in no way irrational. More than anything else, Renny looked like a dangerous caged animal bent on destroying anyone he could get his hands on. An unending litany of threats, curses, and various nonsensical ravings expelled themselves from his mouth.

Despite his uninviting appearance, one’s fear couldn’t help but give way to a sad empathy for Renny’s lowly state. Unasked queries inevitably shape themselves: How did he get like this? Why is he like this? These remain unanswered.

Then Renny commenced with actions that would seem impossible to most, or at least unbelievable. He squatted in one corner of his cell and began to strain as he pushed excrement out into his own eagerly waiting hand. He had much to donate. It had the general consistency of a swirl of chocolate soft-serve ice cream. Once the generous deposit was made, Renny began to throw it around his dwelling, taking the initiative to smear it on the walls, floor, and ceiling. He rubbed the feces against his own body as well before finally trying to cover the small glass window in the door through which the medical staff were monitoring him rather dispassionately. Being accustomed to his behavior by this point, they had no intention of intervening. It wasn’t until Renny got his blood flowing again that he really got their attention.

After he had spread his own shit around the cell and covered his body in it to his own satisfaction, Renny stood in front of his chair/restraining equipment, facing the observation window as if he was about to put on a show. Then he gave the medical staff something to look at. With an uncanny, unnatural, single-minded determination, Renny began to bite at the stitches in his right arm. He held his arm in front of his face, teeth gnawing and gnashing to get a good hold before tearing at the stitches and ripping the flesh anew. His eyes were wide and wild, and his blood-smeared teeth exposed in a gleefully grinning grimace as blood dripped freely from his chin and arm. Renny looked like he was having the time of his life. Then he went to work on the stitches in his left arm.

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One nurse stood at the door and yelled at Renny to stop. Others began to don rubber gowns, gloves, masks, and goggles as protection against possible communicable infections in the crazed inmate’s blood and feces. None of the staff seemed to be in much of a hurry. Renny managed without much difficulty to rip his other stitches out, and he was splashing his blood around his cell in a frenetic frenzy, rubbing the wounds over his body to add to the coating of crap he already wore. He was running and sliding around his small cell, whipping his arms out around him to send fresh gobs of blood splatting against the walls.

The team of doctors and nurses, six in all, was dressed and assembled with various supplies clutched in their hands. They were ready to go, but instead they just waited, crowded around the small square window to watch as Renny gradually began to slow down due to blood loss. After a few minutes, he lost his footing in a particularly slick pool of poop and blood and landed flat on his ass. He made no move to get back up. This was their cue to go to the rescue, and they strolled in casually. Two medical professionals tried to hold his shoulders down, but Renny conjured the strength to thrash back at them, and they all stepped away for a few moments longer until he finally lay still, too weak to fight. His wounds were covered, the bleeding stanched as best as the doctors and nurses could manage, then Renny was carted through the door by all six of them—four carrying the bulk of his weight, while the other two held his arms, which were encased in gauze that was already soggy with blood. He was put on a flat board and strapped into place, his limbs and head immobilized, before being placed on a bed where he waited, bleeding, until the ambulance from an outside hospital arrived to take him for more extensive medical attention.

Whether he died or was shipped to another joint, I don’t know. Renny never returned to the prison after leaving in the ambulance. What Renny left behind was an abysmally disgusting and nauseating mess and some severely frayed nerves and frazzled minds. Amongst his victims was my cellie at the time: the duty of hosing down and sanitizing Renny’s cell fell to him. The entire experience, from witnessing Renny’s actions to cleaning up his mess, haunted my cellie for years.

Notification

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The lockdown had already lasted sixteen days. Rumors hollered onto the gallery said it was supposed to last another two weeks, so when I heard the tell-tale electronic buzz and pop of my cell door being unlocked, I was pulled from my state of drowsy half-slumber and made immediately awake, but not entirely alert. A glance at my watch told me it wasn’t yet nine in the morning. It wouldn’t have mattered if it were high noon, though, because on a lockdown all movement is suspended unless there’s an emergency. My name was called out by the C/O silhouetted in the doorway. I was told to put my blues on and informed that the counselor wanted to see me.

Normally, I would have already been awake for about four hours, but the last of my instant coffee had been dissolved days earlier. Without caffeine as fuel, I was sleeping more and felt lethargic and mentally dull. As I pulled my clothes on, I tried to pummel my brain into better working order and force it to deduce what this could be about. Once I stepped to the door, I saw C/O Whyler had been sent to retrieve me. He was a little guy—his chin barely reached my chest—but he was one of the good ones. I’d known him a while. I thought it was strange that he wouldn’t look me in the eye—and stranger still that he handcuffed me in the front. Protocol for movement outside the cell during lockdown, even just to walk an inmate across the deck for their weekly shower, dictated that hands had to be cuffed behind an inmate’s back.

I asked Whyler what this was about, but he just shrugged and continued to avoid eye contact. He told me that the counselor said I had a phone call. At the time, I was in the midst of a legal appeal, trying to reduce my sentence, and my attorney had stated in a recent letter that once she had reviewed my case she would contact the warden of the institution to set up an attorney phone call. This is the only thing I could imagine it could be. I was woefully wrong.

There was a strange, sad look of pity and shame on Whyler’s face as he deposited me in the counselor’s office and retreated to the other side of the closed door. I took a seat in the chair in front of me. A desk separated the counselor and me, and a few file cabinets lined the wall to my right, with four feet of space between the file cabinets and the desk. The chair he sat in was nearly touching the wall opposite the door. It wasn’t merely a cramped space; it was a claustrophobic’s nightmare.

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Counselor Nettles filled his particular office chair and then some, his girth beginning to rival his height. He wore thin-framed, gold-colored glasses and had a baby-smooth, ugly, fat chin. Male pattern baldness and he were well acquainted. Without looking up from the paperwork he was filling out, Counselor Nettles spoke with tones of disdain and superiority.

Well, your father called around and got a hold of the warden, so you get a phone call. Only for five minutes. I’ll dial the number, make sure it’s your father, then give you the phone. You only get five minutes. What’s your grandmother’s name?”

It took me a handful of seconds to flex my tongue, but I told him. He asked several more questions in a hurried rush, like this situation was a terrible inconvenience to him. My grandmother’s age, date of birth, address—most of which I didn’t know off the top of my head. Once he was done scribbling, he passed the sheet of paper across to me, along with a pen.

Here, sign this,” he instructed while picking up the telephone receiver and asking for an outside line. I barely looked at the page; it was a log sheet to keep an official record of the phone call I was about to make, but provided no information or insight into my situation. Perhaps it was my own mental defenses working overtime, but I still had made no connection or leaps of logic based on the knowledge I had at hand. Passing the signed document back, I finally found the ability to ask what I’d been wondering since Whyler had shown up at my cell door.

Wait, what is this all about?”

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Counselor Nettles peered at me over the top of his glasses with a perturbed look of impatience and naked annoyance. Apparently, I had interrupted him as he was punching in my father’s cell phone number on the landline’s keypad. He looked back at the phone and pressed the final few digits with a bloated index finger before meeting my gaze.

Oh. Your grandma’s dead.”

This particular bit of life-altering news was imparted in the same tone that a server at a restaurant might use to let the customer know that they’re all out of Dr. Pepper. The phone’s receiver was suddenly in front of my face. Counselor Nettles was waving it before my eyes as an indication for me to take it. I was stunned, mentally numb and momentarily paralyzed. The news felt untrue, impossible. My mind tried to wrap itself around the idea, but kept rejecting the notion as cancerous and unwelcome. After a long moment, I reached out with an arm that didn’t feel like my own. He pulled the phone back before I could grasp it.

Five minutes only,” Nettles said again before finally giving me the connection to the outside world. Then, he stood and made his way around the desk, rubbing his considerable belly against me as he tried to force his too-big body through the narrow space between my chair and the filing cabinet. After a struggle, he slid past and provided his final parting message before closing the door behind him.

Remember, five minutes.”

My father’s voice came to me from what felt like a thousand miles away, full of emotion and heavy with tears he’d shed for his departed mother and those still yet to fall. He called me by my childhood nickname, and I wept like I was that child once again. I knew my grandmother had been in the hospital, but I thought she was past the worst of it. I didn’t know she was still sick, so close to the end. But then, who ever does know?

Once I hung up, I sat in the plastic chair, handcuffs biting into my wrists. I wiped the tears from my face and tried to stuff all my emotions back below the surface, where I had to keep them hidden from everyone around me. Then, like the flipping of a switch, all of my sadness, shock, and grief morphed into an anger and immense rage directed toward the callous Counselor Nettles. I stood, stepped to the door, and turned the doorknob—an inherently awkward action for someone in handcuffs. Passing through the threshold with violent purposes on my mind, I cast my eyes from side to side in search of the one upon whom I intended to heap all my hate.

HandcuffsI would later learn that the position of counselor is a union job and is gained not by being properly trained and highly qualified, but by being the one with the most seniority who bids on the job. Counselor Nettles proved that not only were training and qualifications moot, but that basic human decency, kindness, empathy, and compassion were also not prerequisites for the job.

It was probably a good thing for the both of us that Nettles was nowhere to be seen when I burst from his office. By that point I wasn’t doing a lot of thinking about right and wrong or about the consequences of my actions—I only wanted to hurt the man. C/O Whyler was there, waiting for me. Compassion colored his voice and touched his features as he asked if I was okay. This served to quench much of the fire flaring within me.

Whyler escorted me back to my cell, but he didn’t really rush. He let me shuffle along slowly so I could have a few moments of solitude before my forced co-habitation with my cellie began again. In prison, showing emotion equals weakness, and predators are always ready to pounce on a potential victim and take advantage—even guys they’ve known for a while and consider a friend. I wasn’t relishing the idea of going back to my cell, so I would have to hide whatever emotions were working their way through my system. Passing by the solid steel doors of the cells leading to mine, I didn’t hear a sound. People tend to sleep their lives away during a lockdown. I wished I was still sleeping, too, dreaming of something better than my reality.

At my cell, Whyler removed my cuffs before opening the door—a clear violation of the lockdown movement regulations. He said I could take a minute for myself before he had to put me back in the cell, and asked me if I was going to be okay. The truth was that I thought I actually was okay, that I had control over both my rage and grief. I looked at the C/O, and his sincere kindness touched me. Then, like a cord stretched beyond its breaking point, something vital snapped in my throat and chest, releasing a tsunami of unchecked emotion. I clamped my mouth shut, but a whimper escaped me before I could. I bit my lip and battled the burning tears at the edges of my eyes. My heart sped up so quickly that it felt like only a vibration in my chest, one that quickly morphed into an uncontrolled shaking in the rest of my torso. I had to hug myself to keep from losing it completely.

bpw-logoWhyler looked as lost as I felt, wanting to help but not knowing what he could do. I heaved out two huge sobbing breaths, hauled them back in, and, with a practiced act of will, clamped down on the gush of emotions. After using my sleeve as an improvised handkerchief and taking a few deep breaths, I had outwardly collected myself. I even managed to plaster a small, polite smile on my face.

You ready?” Whyler asked.

I nodded. “Yeah. Thanks,” I replied. It was all I could push out before I had to clench my jaw tight. My emotions were threatening to betray me once more.

Officer Whyler nodded and eyed me for a moment. “You want to talk to somebody?” he asked. “Counselor? Chaplain?”

I nodded my head vigorously.

The chaplain?”

I nodded again, not trusting myself to speak.

All right. I’ll let him know.”

I gave a slight nod and poured every ounce of gratitude into the look I sent Whyler’s way.

I gotta lock you up now.”

I nodded my assent and moved aside for him to key the lock and let me in. Stepping into the darkness and warmth of my cell, I heard the murmuring snores of my cellie.

Just before the door lock clicked into place, I heard Whyler’s hushed voice. “I’m sorry.” Then I felt alone.

The chaplain never came. Lockdown lasted another two weeks. I carried my grief in silence.

Gordie’s Devolution

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When Gordie told me he was “gonna beat Kent’s ass,” I took it to be little more than bravado and blowing off steam. I empathized—understood completely his ire and outrage—so I let him vent. Never did I think that the meek and mild kid who had been my cellie over a year before would resort to the type of epic violence he was describing. A year in prison can change a man immensely.

After Gordie went to Seg for horseplay and I lost him as my cellie, I kept track of him as best I could. He fell in with an older crowd, guys who had been in prison longer than Gordie had been on the planet, and they schooled him in the nuances of doing time and practicing what they felt was appropriate racial enmity towards those with skin color of a decidedly darker shade. Since I only saw Gordie in passing every once in a great while and could only occasionally send a message through a third party, I no longer had much sway or influence over him. When he was moved back to my cell house and wing, I was happy to see him, but taken somewhat aback by his revamped persona.

His once open and easy-to-smile face held a perpetual scowl, and a cloud that hung over him kept most people at bay. He seemed interminably angry. I’d known him to be upset, to throw an occasional tantrum or have a bitch fit to complain about whatever was bothering him. This new element of his personality was entirely removed from that type of fleeting emotion; this was closer to a deeply felt and abiding rage.

Gordie had once confided in me that, due to his largely rural and sheltered upbringing, he had never actually seen a black person in real life, only on TV. As he was processed through the intake joint, he had been surrounded by hundreds of men of color, mostly from the inner city, spouting slang and profanity in their own patois. This was quite a culture shock for young Gordie. The vehement and vitriolic racist rhetoric Gordie had picked up in the year since he’d been my cellie was a shock for me. Hate speech peppered with racial slurs twisted his lips in a sneer of scorn; I had trouble believing that Gordie’s words reflected his true feelings. The racism was a perfect conduit for his newly cultivated rage, but as I saw it, the root of Gordie’s problem was his temper.

photo by Victor Habbick www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by Victor Habbick
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

When Kent got caught getting tattooed in his cell, he was sent to Seg. He blamed Gordie for it, claiming that Gordie snitched on him. The “logic” employed in Kent’s argument for Gordie’s guilt was that Gordie, being a porter, had a freedom of movement on the deck that others didn’t, so Gordie was one of the only people who knew what was going on in Kent’s cell. While the notion of Gordie snitching is certainly a possibility, Kent was also a complete jackstick who went around showing off his fresh tats to EVERYONE. It’s more likely that someone else dimed on Kent and his cellie, but Kent believed it was Gordie. It wasn’t long before word got around that Kent was shooting his mouth off in Seg, telling everyone that Gordie was a snitching little bitch and that when he got out of Seg he was going to beat the breaks off Gordie. When Gordie heard about all the character defamation that Kent was aiming in his direction, he was livid.

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Gordie went absolutely berserk; he ranted and raved about how badly he would assault and injure Kent if he ever got his hands on him. I fully understood his indignation and desire to seek retribution upon the person who was so grievously lying about him. Furthermore, prison “logic” dictated that if Gordie were to just let it slide and allow Kent to get away with his supposedly false claims, it would mean that Kent had more than likely been telling the truth. During his lengthy rant, Gordie drew upon his recently adopted ideals of white racial superiority and purity, impugning Kent’s character and worth because—even though he was a white guy—his mannerisms, behavior, speech patterns, and use of slang, as well as his musical preferences, all closely resembled those of the average black inmate. Gordie proclaimed that it would be his duty and honor to hurt Kent, who he deemed to be a disgrace to his race. The entire discourse was so far removed from the Gordie that I had first met, the Gordie I thought I knew seemed to be long gone.

When Kent got out of Seg, he came right back to the same cell house. (Although, to be accurate, he never quite made it to the house.) Since he had gone to Seg for tattooing, there was no official reason on record for Gordie and Kent to be kept separated. Through a window at the back of the deck, Gordie spied Kent coming. Gordie had been loitering on the deck, having completed his few assigned tasks as a porter, and was waiting for the bubble officer to announce that the chow line was on the walk. This announcement was expected at any moment. Gordie hurried to the front of the deck, to the door that opened to an entryway, which in turn led to the walk right outside the building. When Gordie neared the door, the announcement echoed through the gallery as if it had been timed to the nanosecond. “Chow line walking!” Just like the parting of the Red Sea for the children of Israel, Gordie’s path was made clear as both doors were electronically buzzed open, and he was allowed passage without an instant of scrutiny. After all, to all appearances he was just a hungry inmate heading to lunch.

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

Gordie was a slim, thin-limbed guy who stood about five-foot-nine and probably weighed between a hundred and fifty and a hundred and sixty-five pounds. Not exactly intimidating. Kent, on the other hand, had a physique that had clearly been shaped by weights and an advantage over Gordie of a couple inches and thirty pounds. It looked like it would be a lopsided bout, and not in Gordie’s favor.

Gordie walked straight up to Kent and punched him square in the nose with more force than I would’ve thought him capable. They were outside, in a corridor of sorts that was twenty feet long and five feet wide and bordered by fences on either side. This configuration was designed to corral inmates, but as Kent slammed into the fence, it also left him with no avenue of escape. Gordie didn’t say a single word as he hit him twice more in the face. Kent’s knees buckled and he slumped forward—flopping to the ground like he’d become unarticulated and was little more than a slack sack of flesh and bone.

Gordie appeared to have come unhinged as he descended upon Kent without pause, arms like pistons and fists like ball-peen hammers finding all of Kent’s soft spots. It was such a sudden and overwhelming beatdown as to be practically incomprehensible—the senses rejected it as impossible. Kent didn’t put up a fight. He didn’t even raise his hands as a defense. While Kent lay there, Gordie kept hitting him. He was a man possessed—nothing like the Gordie I’d once known.

Officers finally converged to pull Gordie off of his victim, and he was escorted to Seg immediately. Kent needed a stretcher to be escorted anywhere. Gordie was shipped out to another joint without delay, and I have no idea where he ended up. I also don’t know what kind of disciplinary actions were taken against him for his violent assault. What I do know is that I wish I didn’t retain the image of Gordie so thoroughly dismantling a man. I prefer to remember him as he was when we first met and were cellies for six months. I’m not sure that particular version of Gordie exists anymore, and I fear that it probably never will again.

Poor Gordie

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// The angry, wet sound of his violent regurgitation still reverberates through the finite space of my mind the same way it bounced around the confined space of our cell.

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His hair was short and so blond it looked like nothing more than peach fuzz above an oval face. His softened features made him look closer to age twelve or thirteen rather than the nineteen going on twenty that he was. Not a single hair would grow on his chubby baby face. Gordie was in no way impressive or formidable.

At the time, he’d only been down about four months and was still more or less fresh off the bus, so I did what I could to show him the ropes. He’d already had some rotten cellies who had bullied him, and his lengthy sentence meant he would spend nearly as much time behind prison walls as he had spent outside the womb. I felt sorry for him and protective of him, which only made my dilemma that much more troubling.

photo by David Castillo Dominici www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by David Castillo Dominici
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

The incident happened one morning after breakfast. Our trays usually arrived around 4:00 a.m. every morning through the chuck holebreakfast in bed. Gordie had only been in the cell a couple of weeks. During that time, he had mostly just slept and quietly watched some television. We had yet to build the rapport and camaraderie we would eventually enjoy.

My days began with the chuck hole slamming open for breakfast, acting as my alarm clock. Then I was up for the day, trying to scribble my legacy on yellow legal pads. Gordie’s routine to that point had been to finally rouse for the day sometime around noon (though he’d be back down for an afternoon nap around three). For breakfast, Gordie had been in the habit of barely raising his head off the mat to ask me what was on the tray, and then saying I could have it before rolling back to face the wall and slip back into slumber. On the morning in question, I instantly knew something was off because Gordie declared, “I don’t want it,” before the trays had even been delivered. Then he lay there on his back staring at the ceiling, wide awake.

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I ate dutifully, unceremoniously—an automatic act, a reflex. Trays enter full and exit empty: mission accomplished. Food was fuel and nothing more. But on this day, Gordie kept poking his head over the edge of his bunk to peer down and spy on me. It was unnatural, unnerving, and disturbing. I didn’t think I would have to tell him not to do it any more, that it’s not cool–because I figured that not doing it was only common sense. However, if prison has taught me anything, it’s that “common sense” to some is absolutely foreign to others. I opened my mouth, prepared to ask him if something was wrong and instruct him not to hang his head over my food tray and watch me eat. But Gordie spoke before I could.

Are you done eating?”

This caught me off guard. There was a curt anxiousness to his tone, and it took a moment of pause for my brain to kick out words.

Yeah. Yeah, I’m done.” As if to prove my point, I shoveled the last bit of slimy scrambled eggs into my mouth, snapped the lids back on the Lunchables, and placed them back on the chuck hole for retrieval by the breakfast porter. Even as I was doing that, Gordie was cautiously stepping his way down to the bar at the end of the bed that served as a ladder. He was clearly taking great pains to move gingerly but as swiftly as possible. I was confused, but only for a moment. After he grabbed his bedsheet and pulled it down after him, I thought I knew what was happening and couldn’t help but smirk in the early morning darkness.

Just because a person is locked behind a steel door with another man, the basic biological need to eliminate waste doesn’t disappear. As the popular children’s book so succinctly put it: everybody poops. The proper protocol is to stretch one’s bedsheet across the cell to act as a privacy curtain. Technically this is illegal, as it obstructs the officer’s view of the entire cell, but only the biggest of Robocop C/Os actually write a ticket for it. Most of them understand that we’re just trying to cover our shame—a human instinct born moments after Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the serpent, thereby damning us all.

miami beach 411When I saw Gordie drag his bedsheet down and begin to affix it to the foot rail at the end of the bed, I grinned at the thought of him squirming in his bunk and squeezing his cheeks as he held the urge to defecate in order to let me eat breakfast in peace. It was both a funny and a touching notion—that he would endure discomfort just so I wouldn’t have to eat a crappy breakfast. But I was wrong. Gordie did not have to go number two.

Ordinarily, once the sheet is in place, only an inmate’s feet are visible—sometimes not even that. Instead, Gordie’s legs shot out below the sheet towards where I sat on my bottom bunk as he dropped down to his knees in front of the steel toilet, like a devout worshiper before his altar. But the sounds I heard next were not prayers of any kind that I was familiar with. Instead there was a sudden, unexpected, assault on my ears that seemed like the cries of a small but determined animal in a brutal struggle with something slick and slippery—an unearthly entity. Hoarse retches were followed by the inevitable wet splashes as whatever he’d eaten that hadn’t agreed with him made its encore appearance in the toilet bowl.

I steeled my stomach against any notions it might have harbored of showing sympathy or symmetry in regurgitation. I reached for the knob that controlled the window to let in some air, but I was too late to prevent the sour stench from making my eyes water and my throat tighten involuntarily in its own reflexive retch. The rank aroma permeated every available cubic inch of air. The open window let in a freezing winter blast, but provided no relief. Unfazed, Gordie continued spilling the contents of his guts into the toilet, making sad, lonely noises in between expulsions like some pathetic, wounded creature.

Once I overcame my initial shock and revulsion, I searched back in my history for some mental construct or protocol as to how to act in a situation like this. The last vomiting person I’d been in close proximity to was my wife. I had held her hair back to keep it from getting befouled by the puke, rubbed her back in slow, soothing circles, and cooed quiet, loving phrases meant to calm and comfort her pained groans and mumbled moans. Now, though I felt sympathy for his plight and even protective of young Gordie as some type of surrogate little brother, I was fairly certain that a similar reaction on my part might be perceived as odd. Instead, I did what I thought was the next best thing.

Are you okay?” I asked. Possibly the dumbest and most idiotic, pointless query in the history of questions. Gordie’s only response was more throat-tearing, gagging grunts followed by heavy splashes and whimpers of recovery before the next round of regurgitation. I quieted myself and let him be sick in peace.

I thought again about my wife and how I had babied and cared for her when she was sick. I thought of my mother, the person from whom I had learned all my caregiving techniques. She had soothed all my childhood illnesses and cleaned up all my boyhood vomit. Gordie was not my wife, and I was not his mother, but no one who is legitimately ill should have to clean up his own mess. The idea did not thrill me one bit, but once he seemed to be done, I did what I perceived was the right thing to do in the strange curve ball of a circumstance that life had pitched me.

photo courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

Are you alright, Gordie?” (Again with the stupid questions.) “You need any help? Anything I can do?” While I was fully prepared to assist, I was also secretly, desperately hoping I would not have to face any puke up close and personal that day. After a long pause, during which only a few sniffles from Gordie could be heard, he finally answered.

No. I got it.”

Blessed relief flooded me, but my better nature reacted before I could squelch it. “Are you sure?” I asked. No! I was off the hook! Why would I volunteer again? But I was fretting over nothing. Whether it was out of pride or shame or some other notion, Gordie refused my assistance.

The pungent citrus smell of the laundry detergent available on commissary filled the cell. It supplanted the puke smell as Gordie dutifully took a soapy rag to clean the steel of the toilet and sink, then the concrete wall and floor that had likely suffered collateral damage during his violent vomiting. I remained silent throughout, as did Gordie, who then wordlessly crawled into bed and lay motionless for a dozen hours.

My sympathy for my cellie was deep and genuine, but that did him no good. In fact, it seemed he couldn’t catch a break, not even from me, and I could only conceive one notion to sum up the whole screwy situation. Poor Gordie.

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