The Coyote Whisperer

After the incident, my other two cellies and I compared our experiences and perceptions of what was happening to the fourth man in our cell. It sounded like an attack—like he was fighting for his life.

Old Man

When John and Paul penned “When I’m Sixty-Four” I doubt they were pondering the possibility of coming to prison for the first time at that advanced age. That is how Baldalmero (pronunciation: Ball-dull-meh-row) arrived in my cell; old and entirely ignorant of the ins and outs of prison. It was eye-opening for myself and for the other two men in the cell who, between the three of us, had over fifty years of prison time accumulated.

Learning Curve

All the quirks and inconveniences of prison and communal living that we three had taken for granted for years had to be taught and explained to the elderly Mexican whose English was functional, but only barely. It was occasionally frustrating because sometimes the answer to Baldalmero’s question “Why do we it like that?” was an unsatisfying “Because that’s how we do it.” It made me second guess myself as to why do we do it like that? I was often left unsettled too because speaking to him was akin to dealing with a child, and I was rigorously raised to respect my elders, so it didn’t feel right.

Odd Normal

Baldalmero had night-terrors. He had moaned and spoken in rapid, indecipherable Spanish more than a few times while he slumbered. A couple of those times there had been a bit of thrashing and rolling around, but it usually quickly passed. My other cellies had seen it all before over the years and accepted it with a collective shrug of our shoulders. The morning after one particularly boisterous nocturnal calamity I asked Baldalmero about his incidences.

He managed to relate that, yes, he knows he does it and these episodes have been happening for many years. He has accepted them as normal, just something that happens every so often. Baldalmero described it as having a nightmare that he was fighting to wake up from. When it happened, his wife of almost fifty years would calmly call out his name and he would quiet.

A Promise

We had been living together for a few months and he had been teaching me some Spanish to add to the smidgeon that I’d already picked up over the years. He took pains to correct my copious mispronunciations and I grew to appreciate the musical quality of the language. I believe he had grown to trust me. He asked me to please call out to him the next time he was having one of his episodes. I promised that I would. It was only a day later when that promise was tested.

Rude Awakening

“Emilio! Emilio!”

I was shocked from sleep, my heart pumping hard in my chest, quaking up to my throat. I coughed against the feeling, sure it was a physical obstruction choking me. The sensation passed, but words rushed from Baldalmero in panic. I couldn’t understand anything but the name “Emilio!” who he called out to several more times. Just as swiftly as it had begun, Baldalmero quieted with a couple huffing snores and it appeared to be over. I rolled to face away from him, glad that I didn’t have to jump into action, and dropped right back to the edge of consciousness. The whole thing hadn’t been longer than fifteen seconds.

Attack

It felt like I had fallen into a long, deep, restful sleep only to be jolted awake once more. The reality was that the second attack came within seconds of the first. Baldalmero was screaming. No words, just sounds of terror and agony. My eyes snapped open and I rolled toward him a jackhammer once more banging against my breastplate. I was disoriented, feet and fists fighting against twisted sheets, but I stopped a moment when I saw Baldalmero engaged in his own comical combat. His bed was four feet away from mine. He was ion the top bunk laying on his back with his arms flailing at his unseen for while his legs were kicking high like a horizontal Rockette. It would have hilarious if he hadn’t been screaming for his life, and if he wasn’t about to drop five and a half feet to the concrete floor.

Intercession

With a mighty effort I freed myself from my bunk and stumbled to him, still lethargic, confused, and drunk on slumber. Standing next to his bunk, my face level with his, I saw Baldalmero was in pain, deep in the throes of some life or death struggle. I reached out to help or comfort, but pulled my hand back as if too close to a flame, worried that I might cause some harm by shocking him awake. I finally remembered my promise.

Even in my muddled mental state, I knew a meekly whispered “Baldalmero” wouldn’t do anything to cut through whatever horrors had hold of his body and mind. I drew myself to my full height and puffed out my chest, tilted my chin up to him and gathered a lungful to fuel my words. I didn’t scream. I spoke loudly, clearly, with authority. For some reason I used the deepest baritone I could muster, and spoke with a thick Spanish accent. My other two cellies lay in their bunks in states of confusion and unease. They later poked fun at my altered voice and compared it to a soccer announcer. The whole scene was so surreal, and the voice happened without planning or premeditation.

“BALDALMERO. BALDALMERO.”

My voice reverberated through the small room and resonated against my eardrums inside and out. Baldalmero quieted and calmed instantly. There were a couple hushed whimpers as he rolled onto his side away from me and slipped quickly into deep breaths indicative of sleep. I collapsed on my bunk, exhausted but wide awake and wired. I spent the next forty minutes praising the Lord and praying against whatever darkness was oppressing us.

Light of Day

With sunlight shining cheery through the window it took some of the fright out of Baldalmero’s tale. In his dream he was camping at night in an open desert with his brother Emilio. They could hear a coyote snarling and growling in the distance just beyond the firelight’s reach. Emilio ran out to chase it away and never returned. When Baldalmero had really started to thrash, kick, and holler it was because the coyote was biting at his feet, trying to pull him into the night. My voice chased it away. Suddenly Baldalmero and Emilio were safe, walking together on a beautiful sunny day along the road to their boyhood home. Baldalmero said he had felt happy, at peace.

After an extended moment of pause he told me that Emilio had died in a car accident a long time ago. He said it had been good to see Emilio again. Baldalmero smiled wide and with a playfulness in his eyes that was tinged with melancholy he thanked me for chasing away the coyote so he could see his brother again.

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This Year

Time is relative.

It’s malleable like taffy or cotton candy. Stretched out or squashed down, it has a different texture for each individual. Thank God it continues to pass regardless of perception. Prison is all about time.

The Count

Days are meted out in increments of movement. Whether that moving is for school, yard, gym, a shower, or a meal it marks a passage of time. In Segregation movement can be a shuffle to the chuckhole to receive a tray of food, or a CO moving past to perform a scheduled inmate count. Days become weeks, months and years, but even those are counted differently.

Methods

Some guys measure from events and distractions. Jumping from one holiday to another, or one sports season to the next. With preseason football all the way through the Super Bowl a solid six months is gone. More if you factor in the draft. Basketball seems endless; once the finals are over it’s practically preseason again, but guys live for it to make their time pass more seamlessly. Birthdays and anniversaries carry their own heartache, but must be faced. The movie cliché of a guy marking off each day with an X on the calendar is about as common as a Yeti in Times Square. Once he’s down to three or four month it does sometimes happen, but beyond that it is an act of sadomasochism in which guys don’t generally engage.

Myself, I was arrested on the 23rd of the month. It’s not a deliberate or conscious effort, but I end up counting 23s. Each month that day never manages to sneak past without me taking notice that another month has drained the sands of time from my allotted hourglass. For the in-between times I try to stay focused. I work.

Taming Time

I’m up early—4:00 or 4:30. On the rare occasions that I sleep much past that I lurch up in a tiny panic, keenly aware that time is lose forever. In those precious minutes I could’ve been writing, reading, praying, worshiping, or merely enjoying my existence in the dark and quiet of the morning before prison awakes to ruin the calm illusion. I plan and make to-do lists to ensure that letters are written in a timely manner, writing projects stay on schedule, and reading books isn’t neglected. Exercise, job, TV, shower; everything allotted its right time and place. I don’t fall to pieces when things happen to alter my schedule, but I hate the feeling of wasted time. Perhaps, in this context, the term “wasted” is relative too.

In The Dark

My mornings are my favorite time.

No matter how many people may be around me, I’m all alone in the dark. I pray, communing with the Creator of the universe. There’s much wondering, questioning, seeking, wrestling—all pressing on through faith, trust, and hope. Hope can hurt, but hope fixes us. One helluva a smart fella taught me that one.

In the darkness and solitude my thoughts range back and forth through time. They dwell on mistakes or regrets, but more so on triumphs and better times. I fantasize and wonder what life will look like when I’m released. No flying Jetson cars, not yet, but so much has changed in the world and with me since that first 23. Now that day which I wasn’t always sure would come is within sight.

Facing Reality

It’s incredibly surreal, and that will probably only increase as my release date comes closer. I don’t know precisely what is in store for me. I focus on the day and the goals set before me. Perhaps that’s the best measure of time; seeing what is right in front of us. Each morning I continue to sit in the dark and press forward, pondering the truth which seems unreal, too wondrous to be true: I go home this year.

Christmas Groping

Sacred

There are few, if any, things behind prison walls that are absolutely sacrosanct. I submit that Christmas is one of those things. This has nothing to do with religious fervor or sincerity. Lacking adequate qualifier I’ll say that there seems to be an indefinable something special that makes people behave a little differently, perhaps a little better. Maybe even a little nicer.

Across The Spectrum

These aren’t only inmates of which I’m speaking. Officers too tend to take on a slightly less adversarial quality. At times they even exhibit the ability to look the other way and let little things slide. The willingness to slack in their duties in the spirit of the season.

Free Pass

Bringing food back from the chow hall is a big no-no, but on Christmas Day when trays are piled high (or at least higher than usual) with turkey and all the trimmings, most guys try to squirrel some away for later. I’ve had the most hard-ass lieutenant I’ve ever known merely nod in acknowledgement after catching me smuggling. It’s the one day a year when, as inmates, we need not fear repercussion because within reason, we can do no wrong. It is still prison, and bad things always have the potential to kickoff, but it feels less likely on Christmas.

Super Cop

CO Sollide was often a bit of a prick. In the years since this incident he has seemed to mellow and come to terms with the fact that he is not the righteous hero in the story with all the convicts around him being despicable villains. This particular Christmas, however, he had his delusions of grandeur turned up to eleven.

Loaded

Leading up to Christmas I’d been doing plenty of wheeling and dealing. I traded, bartered, and bought so that when I left the chow hall my belly full of food was the least of what I was smuggling. I had two eight ounce bags crammed with turkey, another one full of stuffing (or dressing, if you prefer), double handfuls of carrots and celery sticks, and four prepackaged slices of pumpkin pie. I wasn’t playing around. I had some serious eating planned. I was loaded when I came in sight of the door to my cell house, and what I saw made my gorged stomach lurch an agonized threat to let loose its pressurized contents. CO Sollide was standing in the cold on the snow-dusted wide front porch with his blue latex gloves on. He was shaking down everyone coming back from chow.

Sacrilege

I shuffled forward numbly, unable to process the blasphemous behavior I was beholding. There were only about a dozen guys in front of me so I didn’t have an abundance of time to prepare myself. I didn’t once entertain the possibility of ditching my goodies. It wasn’t even an option. As a wise man once told me: The catching comes before the hanging. If Sollide was going to take my food from me he was going to have to find it first, and if that’s what it came to he was going to have to hear an earful from me. I had worked for CO Sollide for several months and felt I had a good enough rapport with him to speak my mind.

Merry Groping

By the time it was my turn to be groped by another man as an unwanted Christmas present I had already watched CO Sollide relieve several guys of the stashes they had hidden on their person. I was fairly miffed and not in the mood to hide it. I assumed the position in front of CO Sollide, with my arms and legs spread, facing away from him so I had to call back over my shoulder. “This is bullshit. It’s friggin’ Christmas. Why the hell are you doing this, Sollide?”

“It’s not me, man. Lieutenant Jarvis called from the chow hall. He’s making me do this.” His tone was an odd mix of pleading to be believed while hanging onto a tough air of authority. It rang loudly of insincerity, and I didn’t believe for an instant that anyone but Sollide was to blame. He grabbed one turkey bag in my coat pocket. “What’s this?”

“Turkey.”

He gripped the other. “And this?”

“More turkey.”

He ran his hands over me. Gripping my hips, squeezing my butt, lingering across my groin and belly. The level of intensity in his shakedown was way over the top. I felt I’d been victimized when it came to him not so gently cupping my tender bits. I’ve experienced thousands of pat down searches over the years but this one came right up to the edge of a sensual massage or sexual assault. Since my consent was not precisely voluntary, I’d have to lean toward it being more the latter. Finally his fingers fondled the plastic wrappings of the pie slices tucked in my shirt. “This?”

“Dessert.”

CO Sollide sighed deeply and loudly. “Alright, step over there and drop all of it.”

Not Caught Yet

I stepped to where he told me and turned back to him. He was already grabbing the private parts of the next man in line, three feet away from me. Another officer was to my right and a little ahead of me. He looked sheepish and put upon at having been drafted into this distasteful work on Christmas Day. His shakedown lacked the enthusiasm of CO Sollide’s.

A substantial pile of castoffs had already accumulated, and I was standing amongst them. CO Sollide had the expectation that I drop my food, but neither he nor the unwilling recruit were paying me any attention. To use a common idiom around here: CO Sollide must’ve been out of his rabbit-ass mind if he thought I was going to give it all up so easily. I stooped and snatched three unopened prepackaged pumpkin pie slices from the cold red brick porch and scurried inside.

Season’s Greetings

Over the next several days I enjoyed every single bite of my contraband cuisine. If you fear for my health, fear not; the window made a wonderful refrigerator. As you enjoy your Christmas feast of roast beast please remember family, friends, faith; whatever makes it special for you.

And to all those authority figures in positions of power; remember to keep your hands to yourself. No one wants that kind of Christmas groping.

My final MERRY CHRISTMAS from behind prison walls.

Orangutan Dance

I called him Luigi because his bushy moustache and swarthy complexion put me in mind of his namesake from Super Mario Brothers. Not precisely culturally sensitive, but political correctness tends to die at the prison gates. During this particular incident, Luigi looked exactly like an orangutan.

Animal Planet

Arms straight in the air over his head waving side to side with the movement of his body. He wandered a few feet to his left, turned and retraced his steps. I’d seen orangutans perform the same dance on Animal Planet. I couldn’t remember if the pose was a show of dominance or the beginnings of a mating ritual. Either way, I couldn’t figure why Luigi was doing it in the middle of the chow hall.

Bizarrely Hilarious

Not knowing what preceded his graceless ballet, I had no context in which to put it. To me it looked hilariously bizarre, and I wasn’t the only one. The assembled security staff were all silent, dumbfounded, but many people, including myself, were laughing in varying degrees of hysteria. That didn’t last long.

Nasty Reality

Luigi’s upper body suddenly vibrated with an immense shudder as frothy white vomit oozed onto his chin. It sat there in a moment of pause before gaining the required force of momentum to achieve projectile status. Liquid and solid expelled violently. It was no longer very funny.

No Help

The orangutan dance had been his attempt to breath. Luigi brought his arms down, holding his hands to his throat in a universally understood gesture indicating that he was choking. Sergeant Schroeder was closest to the distressed inmate. He backed away quickly. Luigi took a desperate step toward Lieutenant Jarvis who cussed voluminously before stepping back and saying he wouldn’t touch him. The two officers next to Lieutenant Jarvis also retreated as calls of “Help him!” came from a dozen directions. By all appearances those in authority intended to just let Luigi choke to death. None of them even had the presence of mind to key their radio and call out the code for a medical emergency.

Rescue

An inmate stood up near Luigi, looking supremely unsure of himself, but knowing that someone had to do something. He cocked his arm back and was about to start beating on the choking man’s back when Frank bellowed “Don’t touch him” from two tables away.

In another lifetime, over two decades previous, Frank had been a firefighter trained to access and treat those in respiratory distress. His response time was perhaps a bit delayed, but he walked up and unceremoniously pushed the would-be Good Samaritan out of his way. Frank assumed the easily recognized position to perform the Heimlich. He moved with a certainty and assurance that was comforting, calming. Lieutenant Jarvis let out a half-hearted “No, don’t.” Sergeant Schroeder mumbled “Hey, you can’t do that.” Neither of them called for professional medical assistance. Frank said something to Luigi before taking a breath and commencing his rescue maneuver.

Unrecognizable

The gentleman whose namesake is arguably the most recognizable lifesaving move ever devised may not have been able to identify what was happening to Luigi. Or rather, what Frank was doing to him. I’ve passed the appropriate course for CPR certification twice in my life, but still wasn’t entirely sure what I was seeing.

Not Funny

Luigi was bent at a forty-five angle that was creeping toward ninety degrees. This required Frank to lean forward as he tried to wrap his arms around Luigi. The ensuing application of sudden upward pressure on the abdomen administrated by Frank featured an alarming amount of pelvic thrusting. It gave the entire attempt to save Luigi the appearance of an act of sodomy. This similarity would often be recounted for extremely dark comic effect and rightly so. It looked uproariously absurd—it looked like Frank was trying rape Luigi back to life. However, in the severity of the moment, and to the eternal credit of all us hardcore convicts, no one laughed.

Unobstructed

After much bumping and grinding Frank managed to get Luigi into the more traditional upright position. With one last satisfying thrust a hunk of unchewed material expelled itself in a slimy mess at the feet of the ineffectual security staff. Luigi coughed, bent over, hands on his knees, and drooled out whatever remained of the obstruction. A general roar of surprise, approval and congratulations rose before falling just as swiftly. Large numbers of inmates organized for one cause is discouraged. It can be met with sever repercussions, and for that reason most guys have been conditioned not to engage in such displays. Where just seconds before we had all been united in rooting for Luigi and Frank’s unorthodox love affair, all onlookers had returned their attention to the table and tray right in front of them.

No Healthcare

Luigi should have gone to healthcare. This would have required Lieutenant Jarvis to call healthcare, explain in brief what happened, and tell them to expect him. A van could’ve been sent to pick Luigi up, or he could have walked. Sending him to healthcare would’ve meant writing an official Incident Report documenting what occurred. Luigi was told to sit down and drink some water.

Hero Treatment

Frank’s actions constituted such a rarified degree of selfless heroism that he was eligible for months to be subtracted from his sentence. In order for that to happen, an official Incident Report would be necessary. Frank would also need a recommendation from a staff member. Neither Lieutenant Jarvis, Sergeant Schroeder nor any other security staff member present was going to write an Incident Report documenting their inability to act, and then, recommend Frank for a special sentence reduction. Frank was circumspectly told to return to his seat.

Intervention

Isaac was a twitchy, annoying, scheming pain in the ass. This didn’t mean that he deserved to get a beat-down. Actually prison protocol dictated that his actions warranted that very thing. But that didn’t mean that I’d stand by and let it happen.

The Jew

“I need your help, man. Please. I need you.”

Isaac approached me with this preamble to a request without any further fanfare or explanation. His reputation as well as my own personnel history with him made me wary.

Isaac was no taller than five feet four inches, and that’s a generous estimation. He was a little guy, an easy target, and he was Jewish, which made him an instant outsider. Most people simply referred to him as “The Jew”, whether they knew his name or not. Sometimes, though not always, this was twisted into a derogatory slur. In the kind of casual bigotry that is commonplace in prison.

Dilemma

The pressing issue that had caused Isaac to rush up to me while I waited for the next game on the handball court was a predictable one. He had employed some less than scrupulous business practices—promising payment of outstanding debt to two individuals, but only having resources to pay one. His assumption was that he’d be able to lie or weasel his way out of paying his debt in a timely manner. Unfortunately he chose the wrong individual to stiff, so instead, Isaac faced the prospect of physical assault being perpetrated against him. No sooner had Isaac given me the bare bones of his dilemma when the instrument of his impending beating arrived.

Bad Intentions

Rockton was a dark-skinned black man with a shaved head and constant scowl on his face which gave the impression that he was perpetually mean or angry. I hadn’t enough interaction with him to know whether or not that was an accurate impression. The fact that he walked right up to where Isaac and I were talking, grabbed Isaac easily by his puny bicep, and began pulling him off toward the back of the yard didn’t bode well. The area where they were headed was more isolated and without great sightlines for the guard in the tower to see what was going on. Rockton’s intention was obvious to all. Isaac called my name, wrenching his head around to plead for my assistance. His eyes were bugged out and huge behind the thick lenses—he looked terrified.

Confrontation

“Whoa, whoa. Hold up. Hang on a second.” I had to quick-step in order to overtake them. “Wait up. Wait a minute, man.” I placed myself in front of Rockton and didn’t let him maneuver around. Rockton glared hate at me. I don’t know what I was thinking.

“Whatcha want?” His expression got even meaner.

“I was talking to him,” I replied, indicating Isaac with a nod.

“So?”

“Let me talk to him.”

“Naw, I’ma beat his ass.” He tried to push past me, but I stood my ground. He let go of Isaac and stepped toward me chest to chest. He was mere millimeters taller than me, but substantially broader across the shoulders and chest. Intimidatingly wider. “Whatcha wanna do?” His threat was implicit. I still don’t know what I was thinking. Truth be told I was mostly reacting. The notion of letting Isaac get beat up didn’t sit right with me. It wasn’t an option.

Negotiation

“I just wanna talk. Let me holler at you for a second.” I waited for an answer, literally holding my breath. Rockton didn’t so much back up as he did unflex his muscles which had been coiled and ready to strike. I sensed more than saw the crowd gathering to gawk. I sidled up to Rockton, turning my back to the looky-loos and attempting to transition from confrontational to conspiratorial. I leaned in, lowered my voice, and was thrilled when Rockton mimicked me.

“Look, I know the dude is a little snake,” I said, “but you had to know that before you did any business with him.”

“Naw, man. I didn’t. That’s it. Nobody told me that’s how the dude got down.”

“Alright, well, look, I got too much going on with the dude. You beat his ass and I’m screwed.” I waited for some objection. When he continued silently glaring I pressed forward. “How much does he owe you?”

Rockton appeared wary but eventually spat an answer. “Twenty.”

“Twenty what?”

“Whatcha mean? Twenty bones, man! Twenty bucks!”

I cursed inside my skull and threw a grimace of annoyance and exasperation over a shoulder at Isaac. His buggy eyes bulged bigger, pleading. I bit my tongue against cusses and frustration, and turned my attention back to Rockton.

“Alright. I got it. I’ll take it. I got his debt. I’ll pay it, then you don’t have to mess with him anymore. Sound good?” Rockton stepped back as if I’d pushed him and he couldn’t believe what I said. “Sound good?” I asked again.

“Yeah, yeah. That’s cool.” He eyed me suspiciously. “You serious?”

“Yeah, yeah I gotcha. Just make a list. We go to commissary next week, I’ll take care of you, whatever you want. Alright? Just leave dude alone.”

“Bet,” he replied, as an acknowledgement of agreement, and then we shook hands to seal the deal. I told him my name and what cell so he could send me his shopping list, and our transaction was over.

Repercussions

Isaac was vociferously grateful. He couldn’t stop talking and making a big deal of what I had done for him. As payment he took it upon himself to give me the bagel and single serve packet of peanut butter from his kosher meals once or twice a day for a month. This began as a rare delicacy, but eventually it got so I couldn’t stand the sight of the bagel. Rockton received all he asked for and was never any kind of problem. I had problem with loosing twenty dollars because I’m not independently wealthy, but kindness can’t occur without sacrifice. My act of kindness had an unintended consequence of making Isaac follow me around like a lost puppy dog, constantly there and always annoying.

When faced with the prospect of watching Rockton trounce the smaller, weaker Isaac I just couldn’t look the other way. Funny thing is I never too much liked Isaac prior to my intervening, and I liked him even less afterwards.

Mental Health Check

Every Wednesday in segregation is mental health check day. God help you if you lose your mind on one of the other six days of the week.

Due Diligence

“MENTAL HEALTH CHECK!”

The distinctly female voice sounded just outside my door. I rushed to see because it was new stimuli and because I’m a heterosexual male and she’s a woman. Even to my starved eyes she was rather plain looking, slim, petite. Nothing much distinctive about her. This seemed to be the mold from which many of the mental health staff and nurses are poured.

She moved along tapping on doors and saying in a too loud, too sunny voice, “Mental health check. Howya doin’ in there? Everything okay today?” I could never hear the other side of the conversation, but she always ended with “Okay, thanks, have a good day!” Much too cheerful. The whole thing was, essentially, a tasteless joke.

Many men languished in segregation while being investigated under the guise of it being essential to the “safety and security of the institution.” This is merely a pretext for the powers that be to do more or less whatever they want. I never got a sense that anyone too much cared for our mental health while back there, but by doing the once weekly visit DOC covered themselves from a liability standpoint in the event of any litigation or outside investigation.

Trite

Tap, tap, tap.

“Mental Health Check. Howya doin’ in there? Everything okay today?”

It began to grate on me, the hypocrisy of it. I had heard guys scream endlessly only to be ignored or told by a CO to shut-up. I had heard officers threaten to deny the inmate his shower, his food. Never while the mental health check was going on of course. Then everyone was on their best behavior.

Tap, tap, tap.

“Mental Health Check. Howya doin’ in there?”

This time there was an immediate and impassioned response from within the cell. From a distance it all came out in urgent consonants—hard k and t and s sounds, but nothing intelligible. Polite and seemingly obsequious “Mm—hmm . . . yes . . . alright” vocalizations was all I heard from her. Then: “Well, you know, the only constant in life is change.” This she said to the guy locked in a cell and going nowhere.

Outrage

Are you kidding me! I yelled within my skull. I couldn’t believe that’s what passed as keen psychological insight. I wanted to verbally excoriate her. I’d begin by asking if this was the type of worthless, pointless work she had planned doing when she was studying to earn her degree.

(“Mental Health Check.”)

Whether or not her great contribution to the betterment of society was to come in spouting naïve banalities to men she cannot help. Or whether she even gives a damn about them.

(“Mental Health Check.”)

I wanted to know if she had ever cared at all or if this was just a paycheck to her—a cushy union gig. I wanted to scream: “No! No, I’m not okay! What kind of stupid, asinine question is that? I’m locked in Seg! I’ve had everything stripped from me! My parents visited and had to see me chained like a wild frigging animal! I have no idea what the outcome of my situation is going to be because, guess what? I didn’t do anything wrong! I’m only here because smallminded fascists wanted to shut me up. I didn’t break any rules, but they don’t like that I put my prison experiences on a website for the whole world to see. Why don’t they like it? Because some of the essays might make DOC look bad, and God forbid that the truth gets out! They’re abusing their authority holding me here, and trying to squelch my freedom of speech. So, no, you know what? No, I am not okay. Of course I’m not okay!”

(“Mental Health Check.”)

I was going to call “Bullshit!” on this little routine of checking each cell off her list just so she could rubberstamp us all “sane enough” for another week and cover the prison’s collective and considerable hindquarters.

(“Mental Health Check.”)

I wanted to make her question, if not regret ever getting into the field of prison healthcare (an oxymoron if I ever heard one). I wanted to make her flee in tears and shame.

(“Mental Health Check.”)

She was almost at my door and I wanted to tell her all this. I was going to tell her all this and more. Know what I did tell her?

Reality

Tap, tap, tap.

“Mental Health Check. Howya doin’ in there? Everything okay today?”

By the time she tapped my door I was sitting, facing away from her. I merely raised my arm in her direction and extended one single digit to convey to her how I was doing. My thumb.

“Okay, thanks, have a good day!”

An important lesson: Learn to pick your battles or you’ll get tired or hurt from beating your head against the proverbial wall. Yet I’ve never gotten used to swallowing my ire in the face of callousness and injustice.

Sauce

“Sauce.”

He said it all the time. Sometimes it would be an exclamation of victory or a declaration of intent. Other times he’d mumble it introspectively. Still others it seemed like some kind of involuntary tic.

“Sauce.”

Bizarre doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Obsessive

Brayden was skinny and muscular—a result of him working out constantly. He showered three or four times a day. He shared a cell with five other guys and had to have all his possessions arrange just so on the shelf by his bunk. Not long after moving into the cell he became convinced that one or more of his cellies was spying on him. According to Brayden, he had caught one of the five in particular watching him in the middle of the night while he slept. I tried to point out the flaw in his logic—if he was sleeping, then how did he know what this other guy was doing? However, no amount of my rational thought would dissuade him from his certainty, so Brayden managed to rig a partition to his bunk so that no one could see him. To my never-ending surprise no Correctional Officer never said anything about this highly illegal visual obstruction. This seemed to embolden Brayden, and he began to become slack in his attempts to conceal some of his other illegal activities.

Overmedicated

Brayden had been diagnosed with some psychological malady. He was always vague with the details when I would ask, and it’s possible that he was merely saying the right things in order to scam a prescription for something, anything to alter his perception and get him “high” for any length of time. I believe it was a combination of a legitimate mental health issue and drug seeking behavior. Comorbidity, I believe is the term. Whatever the case may be, Brayden never missed morning or evening med-line. At the these med-lines it was required that the inmate put the medicine in his mouth, swallow water, and then open his mouth for inspection by a nurse or CO to insure that the meds were actually ingested. Being caught trying to cheat or otherwise hide pills means an immediate trip to Seg. I have no idea what Brayden’s technique consisted of, but he never got caught and always brought meds back.

The Ritual

“Sauce.” Tap, tap, tap. Pause. Tap, tap, pause. Taptaptaptaptaptaptap. “Sauce.” This last was the sound of satisfaction, recognition of a job well done. The next sound was the telltale sniff, sharp inhalation of powder up one’s nose. All this Brayden did while seated on his bunk, hunkered behind his makeshift walls which consisted of a bedsheet and large section of cardboard scrounged from the box of toilet paper that was brought to the cell-house every Saturday to be dispersed one roll per inmate.

There was a series of grunting groans, more sniffs to insure everything got to where it was supposed to go, a few coughs, finally a satisfied growl. “Yeah. Sauce.” This had been Brayden’s routine for months, and I’d grown largely immune to it as little more than background noise. I sat on my bunk and continued writing. This time turned out to be different because Brayden and I were alone in the cell—the rarest of occurrences—and because Brayden offered me some of what he had.

The Offer

“Sauce. Sauce. Sauce. Sauce.” If I hadn’t looked up when I did in response to his incessant saucing of me I have zero doubt that he would’ve continued on in his metronomic fashion for all of eternity. Perhaps some slight hyperbole, but I knew that he wasn’t stopping until I acknowledged him. I cut my eyes up to Brayden and saw that he was poking his head out from his enclosure with the bedsheet around it, which gave it the appearance of floating freely. His face was twisted into a wide-eyed grotesque grin. He stared at me like that for a while before a low playful chuckle began deep in his throat and built to the crescendo of a high-pitched giggle. I patiently waited for him to run out of breath before speaking. “What’s up, man?” He tittered a little more, then restarted his mantra.

“Sauce. Sauce. Sauce.” After the first couple times he began poking his hand through the opening in the sheet about a foot below his disembodied head. He would poke it out then retreat in rhythm with his signature catchphrase so that each “sauce” was punctuated with its own peekaboo. There was a blue packet of generic sugar substitute pinched tight between his forefinger and thumb. I knew that Brayden emptied these into his mouth then used them as the receptacle in which he crushed his pills. Any resident would be harmless if inhaled, and would also provide a slight sweetness to counterbalance the bitterness of the crushed prescription medication. It wasn’t immediately clear to me what he was trying to convey. Perhaps I was being intentionally dim as an unconscious defense mechanism. In any event, I had to ask.

“What?”

“You want some?” was Brayden’s response, so immediate that it practically tripped on the heels of my query. His answer came with his ongoing (and unsettling) grin accompanied by his eyebrows rising and falling in a demented approximation of a Groucho Marx impersonation.

Whatever It Takes

I am no stranger to addiction. I smoked, snorted and swallowed chemicals in ill-advised attempts to alter my consciousness. I used to live in that haze of constantly chasing the high. Only sobriety allowed me to see the depths of depravity to which I had sank. And yet, my voice sounded far too curious and disturbingly interested when I asked my question.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know,” he said with a deranged chuckle. “Sauce.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?”

“I mean I don’t know. Sauce. I traded it with a guy. Sometimes I get painkillers, or muscle relaxers, tranqs, whatever it takes, man. I don’t care. This guy had some kind of psych meds I never heard of. I don’t know. But,” he started cracking up laughing again, “it’s already got me fucked up.”

Errant Thoughts

This was a seal of approval from Brayden. He devolved into hysterical laughter. His face turned red, his eyes watered, he drooled. Eventually he started coughing, trying to catch his breath. I watched him. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t think about his offer. I actually gave it some serious consideration.

This so thoroughly frightened and disturbed me because I knew all too well that by entertaining thoughts they often turn into intentions which in turn give way to actions. Once those initial thoughts are acted upon, the deed is done, and the consequences must be faced. I confess that I pondered Brayden’s offer for far too long.

Hesitation

After he calmed down enough to speak he tried again. “Come on, sauce. Are you sure? Sauce, sauce, sauce. Sauce?”

“No,” I finally said after an uncomfortable long hesitation. “I’m good, man. Not this time.”

“You sure? Sauce?” He held the sweetener pack out to me. I looked hard enough to clearly read the label from five feet away. It said “sweet sprinkles,” and for some reason that made it all the more enticing.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m sure.” I didn’t sound or feel sure.

“Sauce. Okay. Sauce.”

Unsettling

He disappeared back behind his blind and all I heard was him muttering his favorite word and snorting what remained of his sweet sprinkles. I had to put my headphones on and turn my music loud to drown him out, but I couldn’t dampen my own nagging questions.

Why had I told Brayden “not this time”? Why didn’t say a more definite “not ever”?