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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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”?

The Psycho Whisperer

“No. Hell no! This is bullshit! You can’t do this. You have to let me go. You can’t just deny me. It’s my right! Hey. Hey! Are you listening to me? You’re denying me my right. You know that? Hey! Do you hear me? Hey! Get back here and let me out!”

Irate

I was livid. I couldn’t believe it. I smacked my palm against the security glass until the slapping began to hurt. I banged with my fist which produced a more dull and manageable pain. I continued to yell for the officer to come back, but it was all to no avail. He was, however, required to perform his routine count. Within thirty minutes the officer returned.

Round Two

There was more yelling on my part and pounding on the glass. I had a dim and distant understanding that I was behaving like a lunatic, but it was more like I was detached and watching some stranger lose his composure. There was nothing to be done, no solution that I could see. I was being denied my rights and no amount of rational discussion was going to change that truth. To be fair, at this point, I was well beyond the capacity for any reasoned or measured discourse. Further screaming and assaulting the large window that separated me from the officer had no effect other than causing him to let slip a little smirk as he exited. I therefore adopted a more aggressive tactic.

Not Calculation

I was frustrated and angry. I believed there was an idiotic logic to my actions. It was something that I had witnessed before: Behave politely and respectfully and you’re ignored—act like a wild animal and the powers that be have to pay attention. I’d like to say that I was being very calculating and precise, that it was all an act, but that’s simply not true. The truth is that I had completely lost it.

Unhinged

I gripped the bars of the cellblock door and shook them, making them clatter an enormous racket. I tried kicking the door, but it didn’t produce as sustained, loud or satisfying a sound. Also, it hurt my foot. Instead I resumed rattling the door on its track. I was vaguely aware that my fellow inmates were watching while withdrawing from me with looks of worry and bewilderment. I didn’t care. Rather than rein it in I began to scream.

Enraged guttural gusts of hot air exploded from my throat. They were wordless, primal sounds born from feelings of helplessness, hatred and rage. I hollered until it felt like I’d been swallowing mouthfuls of sand. I made the steel door sing its terrible lullaby until my shoulders burned from the exertion and my arms felt like twin twizzlers. In the frenzied insanity of the instant I would have sworn that my tantrum lasted a full ten minutes. My criminal compatriots later assured me that it wasn’t even half that—it was, however, long enough for the individuals in charge at the County Jail to send in the expert.

The Psycho Whisperer

I’d seen Officer Brett employ his unique skillset before, but never for an instant had I ever imagined that he would have cause to use it against me. Nevertheless, in this instance, I was the psycho. Officer Brett opened the door to the cellblock and stepped in leaving only steel bars between us, including the barred door that I’d been shaking. His mere appearance was enough for me to fall silent and still. The echo of the metal thrumming hummed in the sudden quiet. Officer Brett just looked at me as I gasped for air after having worked myself into an exhausted furor. He looked me in the eyes and nodded his head twice before speaking in a sober, confidential tone. “This isn’t you.”

Convicted

The calm assurance with which he spoke convicted me to my core. A breath hitched and caught in my chest as an abhorrent cesspool of pent up emotions fought to release themselves. When I spoke there was a whining keen in my voice that I despised but was helpless to hide or control.

“It’s not fair, Brett. You know it’s not fair. First they move me to separate me from Stape so I can’t help him with his case. Now I can’t even be in the same room with him? I can’t even go to church?” My outraged incredulity was tempered by my petulant tone so that it lost some of its potential efficiency and still just sounded like I was a child pitching a fit because I didn’t get my way. I had largely regained my breath, if not my composure, and I leaned in close to speak my piece. Officer Brett mimicked my body language so that I was speaking through the bars to him with only a couple of inches between us. My voice became an insistent whisper.

“You know, Brett, you know this is wrong. Not only illegal, this is just wrong. You know. Brett, you know that Stape is innocent. You know that the police killed his wife and now these state attorneys and public defenders are helping to cover it up. You know this. Now they figured out that we’ve been helping each other and they’ve made sure that we’re kept apart. This whole thing is wrong.”

It was Officer Brett’s turn to be convicted. He dropped his gaze, unable to look me in the eyes anymore. He executed an elaborate shrug and sighed out a lengthy exhalation. He shook his head back and forth, his mouth opening and closing in what I took to be soundless assent. Silence spun out between us for several long moments. There was nothing more to say on the subject.

Cold Calculation

When Officer Brett finally looked at me again he only had one question. “Are you done then?”

I coughed a humorless laugh. “Yeah, sure, I’m done.”

“Good. Good.” He nodded. “Once the church service is over you can speak to the pastor one on one.” Officer Brett turned to leave, but paused a bit before turning back. “And with Mr. Stape, I have to believe it will work itself out. I have to believe that.”

I blew wind through my lips in a scornful scoff. It was perhaps unfair of me, and Officer Brett was certainly in an untenable situation, but his equivocation rang hollow to me.

Afterthought

I never really got to see or interact with my friend Stape again even though we remained in the County Jail together for nearly another year. He was eventually convicted to eighty-five years in prison for a murder that I don’t believe he committed.

Next Year

Junior had been locked up for twenty-three years. He began serving his time at age sixteen. Prison was what he knew, much more than the real world beyond these gates and walls.

Good Guy

Junior was a hospice volunteer, which meant that he sat with and cared for terminal patients in the healthcare unit. I had been in the cell with him for six months, during which time I witnessed him deal with the death of several of his patients. Some of them he was afforded special permission to sit beside through the night and provide comfort in their final moments. Within these six months Junior’s father also died. Through it all he exhibited more grit and grace than I imagine I could’ve managed were our rolls reversed. Whatever crimes led to his incarceration, I observed him to be a good guy.

Party!

New Year’s Eve was fast approaching and Junior was declaring, insisting, that the six of us who shared the large cell would all stay up and ring in the New Year with a raucous party fueled by food, caffeine and sugar. Lots of the latter two especially. Junior had a radio so we could blast music and really turn it into a wild all-nighter never to be forgotten.

Unenthused

I’d been incarcerated for nearly a decade at this point and had never once stayed up to ring in the New Year with any kind of celebration. Didn’t much see the point? In the grand scheme of things it was just another day in prison. I valued my sleep. I’m an early riser, usually up between four and four-thirty every morning with rare exceptions or deviations. Making it to midnight and beyond seemed an impossibility, and it wasn’t a plan or prospect I was too enthused about. However, this would be my first New Year in a communal living arrangement—six man cell instead of a two man—so, as much as I didn’t like it, I had to come to terms with the fact that I’d have to alter my habits to accommodate my cohabitants.

Stubborn

Since this was something I wasn’t happy about, and I’m stubborn, I kept telling my cellies there was no way I was staying up that late. I also told them they better be quiet when I got to sleep. It was a jocular back and forth between them and myself, but deep down I was fully, completely serious. Junior was the driving force behind everyone’s sudden desire to stay up. He met each of my protests with his big grin and easygoing assuredness. I couldn’t fathom why exactly Junior wanted to be awake for midnight because he was usually waking up the same time as me. It was a puzzle which would eventually reveal itself.

All Is Quiet

New Year’s Eve.

Our big plans for cooking a large meal for all of us to share together was stymied by commissary shopping being so delayed that we didn’t get to go before the holidays. We were all animated enough until around nine o’clock when the conversation grew more muted and restrained. Without the aid of caffeine we were all fading fast.

By the time the ball dropped in New York City we languished in the middle of the country waiting for our time zone to catch up. A sleepy silence settled over the cell which was only punctuated by an occasional comment about one of the interchangeable pop-singers performing in Time Square. Yawns were seen and heard all around the room. I was battling sleep with the vigor of a barbarian. Junior was laying on his side, watching TV, his heavy lids drooping on numerous occasions. He was the ringleader of this ill-conceived, silly slumber party, and if I was awake he had to be too.

Exhausted

“Junior!” I yelled. “Junior!!” His eyes flew open and he shot up sideways onto his elbow, making some garbled inarticulate noises posing as words.

“Wake up, man. This is your party, no going to sleep now.”

Junior grinned sleepily, sheepishly, and sat up on the edge of his bunk. We all had a laugh at his expense, but good-natured, not mean-spirited. He was clearly just as exhausted and ready for sleep as the rest of us, so I asked him pointblank just what the big deal was, and why he wanted to stay up and ring in the New Year.

The Reason

Junior smiled once again, looking around the cell at the four other expectant faces all wondering the same thing that I was, and wanting an answer. He shrugged before indulging in a full-bodied yawn and stretch. He looked a bit embarrassed as he searched for a way to explain himself. Finally with another shrug, he told us.

“As soon as this year clicks over to the next I can finally, officially say that I go home next year.” Junior’s shoulders raised lazily to his ears as if in apology for a lame excuse. I don’t believe any of us felt his reason was a bad one. On some level we each understood. The remaining twenty minutes of the year were spent in an amiable silence with everyone staring at their respective televisions.

Next Year

At the appropriate time subdued cheers and Happy New Years were passed all around. Within three minutes the idiot boxes were all dark and everyone was tucked in for sleep. From where I lay on my bunk I could see Junior was on his back, head propped atop his pillow, blanket pulled up to his chin, eyes closed.

“Hey, Junior,” I called. In the orange glow of the security light shining in the window I saw one eyelid peel back to acknowledge that he heard me.

“When you go home?” The second eye shuttered open and his face split into a grin filled with the greatest degree of satisfaction I’d seen in my middle-aged life. When he answered me his voice was warm and joyful, excited and content.

“Next year.”

Coda

This past New Year’s Eve I reenacted this same scene. I didn’t make a big fuss or deal out of it, didn’t involve my cellies. I did, however, break from my established routine so that I could stand at the threshold and mark the turning of 2017 into 2018. I did this because now it is my turn. I can finally voice Junior’s same sentiments.

I go home next year.

Misfits

Weirdo Factor

Feeding time in prison is always accompanied by the dividing up into factions as the line begins to wind its way to the chow hall. The most obvious criteria is the racial barrier, and to a large degree the blacks, whites, and Latinos all do tend to gravitate to their own kind.

However, there is also plenty of racial mixing together, and it is almost entirely accepted. The less obvious but far more important factor to consider is where the weirdos are. There is a lengthy list of less-than-desirables who you don’t want to get stuck beside while trying to eat the already barely stomach-able cuisine. Some guys stink, others talk and spit food, some chew loudly. Aggravations abound to create an atrocious dining experience. It all starts on the walk to chow where you must maneuver as best you can so that you’re surrounded by a decent group of guys.

Miscalculation

On this particular occasion I was distracted by a conversation with my buddy Brady who was in line next to me and consequently I miscalculated our proximity to the group of weirdos who all tended to flock toward the front of the line. I preferred leaving a buffer of five to ten people just to be safe, but there was no space at all between myself and them. Once we reached the chow hall the order was set because several lieutenants and sergeants bark at inmates to prohibit them from changing their position in line. There are eight seats to a table, and upon performing a quick count I discerned that I was right on the cusp of disaster. I was side by side with Brady, so I slowed imperceptibly, but just enough to put him in the lead and place him in the last seat with those ahead of us while I would breeze by to a new table. All if fair in love and war. And prison chow time.

Trickery

We grabbed our trays and headed toward the table, but Brady never slowed as instead he breezed right past the empty seat and headed toward the next table. I was a half-dozen paces behind him, and while his deception had gone unnoticed, the sergeant on duty was paying attention as I tried to sneak by, and I was instructed to fill in the empty seat. As I took my place at the table of misfit toys I shot a withering look at Brady who was grinning wide and guffawing over the misfortune he had fostered upon me.

A Motley Crew

A quick glance at my de facto companions let me know that I was in for a decidedly unique dining experience. Starting at my left and moving clockwise there was Bankie, a bona-fide crack-baby all grown up. He wore a perpetually dazed grin on his face with vacant eyes. He mumbled to himself incessantly, that is, when he wasn’t laughing at whatever he was mumbling about. Bankie put no premium on personal hygiene, so he smelled incredibly ripe. He also had no sense of personal space so he crowded my tray as I tried to eat.

Angie and Hyena were next, the former about six and a half feet tall and stout; the later barely five feet and pushing seventy years old. Where one went the other followed. Angie was big and dumb ala Steinbeck’s Lenny, and Hyena spoke little to no English and talked with a high-pitched amused chortle when he wasn’t whistling an unending, unidentifiable, tuneless tune.

Then came Paprika, and he was the epitome of a dirty white boy. Broke, scheming, two-faced, grimy, thirsty. Beside him was Rosy, and compared to Paprika, Rosy looked downright normal and well-adjusted, although he exhibited many of the same aforementioned dirty white boy attributes. Rosy also talked constantly, usually about cartoons, mostly Japanese anime. Life of the party he was not.

Scraggles looked exactly, and I do mean exactly, like the character Shaggy from the old Scooby Doo cartoon. In fact “Shaggy” would’ve been a much better nickname, but that’s not how it went. Scraggles was a young, dumb, know-it-all who wasn’t even yet old enough to drink legally. He also talked constantly, often complaining, mostly about inconsequential nonsense and trivialities. Lots of macho posturing from a guy slim as a popsicle stick and just as brittle.

Old Man Chevy (pronounced like the car) was the final of the not-to-magnificent seven. He was sitting to my right and creeping up on eighty or death—whatever came first. He wore several layers of clothes, including two hats, nearly year round and carried a musty smell with him wherever he went. Characterizing it as “old man smell” would be an affront to elderly males everywhere. Chevy had concocted and festered an odor all his own. An amalgam of dried sweat, urine, and feces with a hint of soap and a sprinkle of talcum. Then there was me, wishing I could scarf my food and get out immediately.

An Assortment of Annoyances

Angie asked if I was going to eat my Sloppy Joe before my butt had even grazed the seat. After my “yes’, Angie then had to translate Hyena’s broken English and wild gesticulating to ask if I was planning to eat my mixed vegetables. Paprika asked after my Sloppy Joe, then my bread, then my mashed potatoes, and finally my two pats of butter. Rosy wanted my bread. Chevy wanted to know if he could have my orange, he didn’t even bother inquiring if I planned on eating it. I hadn’t yet picked up m utensil to begin eating. Scraggles complained about the mashed potatoes, then the Sloppy Joe, then the bread, then the water, then the plastic spork, then the cracked tray. Bankie chuckled at what I’m assuming was some hilarious observation from one of the voices inside his head. I took a deep breath, let it out in a sigh, and set to the task before me.

Weirdos Galore

I nibbled at my food unenthusiastically and kept a keen eye on the odd eaters all around me. Bankie stared straight ahead, shoveling food into his mouth, chewing mechanically, oblivious to what he left sitting on his bottom lip or dribbling down his chin. Angie stared straight ahead, shoveling food into his mouth, chewing mechanically, not a morsel of food was missed or wasted even between bouts of yammering to Hyena in Spanish. Paprika and Rosy blabbered about cartoon bare-breasted babes between bites while bits of spittle and food flew back and forth between them.

Chevy packaged his food into different little containers and baggies, disappearing each one into his multiple layers of clothes as they become filled. Scraggles only stopped complaining long enough to toss in a comment to Paprika and Rosy’s twisted conversation. I just wanted to eat my terrible food in peace, but with the dual pungent foul fragrances of Bankie on my left and Chevy on my right that was clearly too much to ask. Then Hyena suddenly began screaming in fast-paced Spanish to someone behind me, sending half a mouthful of food splattering across the table right in front of my tray.

Everyone erupted into uproarious laughter except me. I found it to be more revolting than hilarious. Throughout all of this I had maintained a passive, noncommittal look on my face, not wanting to engage with any of the weirdos. However, once the laughs subsided, Scraggles turned to Old Man Chevy and said something that, after all that I had seen, heard and endured was the final straw of stupidity for me.

Momma’s Boy   

“You want my orange?” Scraggles asked Chevy, holding it aloft for him. “What, you don’t like them?” Paprika asked, sticking his nose in business that had nothing whatsoever to do with him. Chevy snatched the fruit and wordlessly stuffed it in his coat pocket before the offer could be rescinded. “No, I like oranges,” Scraggles said. “I just can’t peel them. I don’t know how to peel them. My Mom peels my oranges for me.”

My hand stopped halfway to my mouth with a spoonful of food suspended in mid-air. I was entirely dumbstruck. I did a double, then a triple take at him before finally being unable to control my outburst.

Flabbergasted

“What? What!? Are you freaking kidding me!?” I waited for a response. “Are you?” Everyone at the table was looking at me as if I were the loony one. The fact is, at the weirdo table, I was the misfit.

I snorted out a sound of derision and disgust before turning my back on the lot of them and leaving my tray picked over but largely uneaten. After about a minute Angie spoke up. “Are you going to eat that?” Paprika tried to lay claim to the bread or Sloppy Joe or both. I stayed out of it and waited impatiently for rescue.

Just Bitting

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This excerpt is from Candy and Blood. Available for purchase on Amazon now.

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My world was turned upside down, and I wasn’t really sure how to navigate the strange new terrain in which I found myself.

My buddy Kevin, a guy who I’d known for two years and who had been my cellie for nine months, was moved into the same cell house as me. The rumor was that he was suspected of homosexual activity in his previous house, so he was separated from his…special friend. Believing that I knew Kevin better than that, I dismissed the gossip as ridiculous. Then Kevin admitted freely and openly that the rumors were, in fact, entirely true.

bpw-logoMy first thought? I gotta say, I was a bit insulted—apparently I wasn’t his type. (A strange thought for a heterosexual man to have, but that’s where my brain went first.) I was having difficulty processing this bombshell. A big part of me didn’t even believe him, like perhaps this was some elaborate prank being pulled on me. It wasn’t.

I don’t purport to understand the mechanics of the gay man’s mind, but I do understand that homosexuality isn’t widely welcomed in prison. Therefore, I would expect a man to choose to hide his sexual orientation. However, that’s not what Kevin was doing. To hear him tell it, he’s not gay; he’s just bitting, merely passing time. This seems like little more than an easy excuse for a person to hide behind. Or perhaps it’s just my own puritanical sexual proclivities shining through. I mean, you’re either gay or you’re not, right?

When Kevin asked me point blank if I thought of him any differently now that I knew his story, I felt like I was being put on the spot. All I could manage was to numbly shrug my shoulders and give a noncommittal grunt. I couldn’t believe what Kevin was telling me—and that he was suddenly open about it.

Although Kevin was admitting to passing time, he continued to deny he was gay. I found myself thinking back to our time as cellies. As much as I scoured my remembrances, there were no hints or missed signals that should have betrayed his tendencies. Kevin is a big, swole guy who works out constantly, but this describes over half the guys in prison. The point is, I saw nothing soft or effeminate about him, like most geechies in prison. I assume he was keeping it on the sly. Even as he claimed he was just bitting, Kevin began to talk about his boyfriend (Yes, Kevin used the term “boyfriend” while still denying being gay). As he described missing him, Kevin displayed an obvious tenderness and affection for this other man. He went on and on about wanting to go back to the other house with his boyfriend, and I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly Kevin received as a present for his recent birthday. I decided I didn’t want to know.

Part of me was genuinely offended, but not because I wasn’t Kevin’s type (in hindsight, it’s probably a good thing I wasn’t). What bugged me is that I had lived with him and had no idea. It made me wonder who else I had no idea about. After Kevin became more open about his sexuality, I also couldn’t help but think how it reflected on me. I’d gotten suspicious looks from people who knew I’d spent nine months in the cell with the guy—it was assumed that I, too, had resorted to passing time. The thought was abhorrent to me.

Kevin was my friend, but his revelation changed everything, and I didn’t know how to react. My options, as I saw them, weren’t many. Should I subtly distance myself from him? Shun him entirely for the sake of my own reputation? Just ignore the newest elephant in the room and act like nothing had changed? It was knowledge that couldn’t easily be forgotten, and Kevin didn’t make it easy on me.

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http://www.telegraph.co.uk

Within an hour of looking me in the eye and admitting to engaging in homosexual acts with his boyfriend, Kevin told me he hadn’t had a letter or visit from his girlfriend in a while and that he was worried she may be back on the nod. (Oh, did I not mention that Kevin also has a girlfriend in the world?) I could almost hear my mental gears grind as I tried to shift to the new topic of discussion. Before I could get there, Kevin was back to talking about his other paramour. He cursed and angrily lamented that he would have to start missing the early-morning yards and gyms so he could leave with the early line and go to the prayer room to visit his boyfriend. This, more than any of his other declarations, was the most disturbing statement for me to hear. Let me explain.

In all the time I lived with Kevin, he never missed a Rec. I used to talk shit to him that he was a dope fiend for working out—meaning he was compulsively addicted to it. That was our little friendly joke. He pretty much never voluntarily took a day off. Even when he was injured I usually saw him just work through it. Kevin’s decision to skip Rec let me know how serious he was about his boyfriend. The fact that he was willing to go to the prayer room told me he wasn’t going to try to hide it anymore.

The prayer room has a communal bathroom with toilet stalls in it that, whether intentional or not, the C/O on duty is lax in patrolling. It’s common knowledge that only those who are most flagrant with their homosexuality go to the prayer room. I imagine that some go there merely to socialize with others who share their own sexual preferences, but that’s not the case for everyone who attends the prayer room. Suffice it to say, there may be men on their knees, but there’s not a whole lot of praying going on. Scheduled chapel services are also common meeting places for homosexuals in prison. It has gotten so bad that to openly confess Christianity is to expose oneself to suspicions of homosexuality. To hear Kevin’s sudden new plans for attending chapel and prayer room religiously—by which I mean faithfully, which is to say regularly, and not full of faith—is tantamount to a confession that he is gay. Of course, according to him, he’s just bitting.

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No Talk

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

Standing just two and a half feet away, my new cellie began badmouthing me through the chuck hole in the door.

Yeah bro, they all lamers. Ain’t none of ‘em a convict. I’m sick of cellies who don’t know how to bit. His fat ass don’t workout; no job. Why do I gotta get stuck with him? Pisses me off! You know, all I gotta do is pull out my juice card with that loo and dude’s dumb ass is gone. I’m trying to be easy though, and I don’t wanna have to go there. You feel me? I’ll tell you what, though, he’d best just walk himself like my last cellies before I swing on him and end up thumping him til the white meat show.”

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

Although he was talking to a porter on the other side of the cell door, it was mostly for my benefit, since it would’ve been impossible for me not to hear every word he said. His thinly-veiled threats and their attendant sentiments weren’t much in the spirit of the season, and they certainly weren’t the Christmas present I had hoped for.

I’d known Tory for only nine days, and we hadn’t exactly hit it off. He didn’t like that I woke up so early in the morning. But I wasn’t a fan of his three-hour-long workout routines that got the cell hot and musty and basically trapped me on my top bunk, out of his way. He didn’t like that I had no job and wasn’t in school, which gave him no time to himself in the cell. He didn’t understand that I had just completed the college course I’d been enrolled in, and that I’d had a job as a porter before being relocated against my wishes to his cell in a new house. I tried to be patient and explain our differences with the logic that we had both been down a while and were used to having things our own way.

His conversation at the cell door changed everything.

It’s not like we’d been a couple of chatterboxes up to that point, but after Tory let his true feelings be known, we were on no talk. His passive-aggressive tactics were accompanied by periodic glances in my direction as he mean mugged me with scowls of disdain and hatred. After two days of angry glares and utter silence between the two of us, and just as our souring relationship reached its most tenuous point, the joint was put on lockdown.

For twelve days, the only moment we had apart from one another was the one time we were cuffed and marched to separate showers. Not a single syllable was uttered between us, and there was nothing even remotely comfortable about our silence. In prison, certain small courtesies are taken as granted between cellies subsisting on meals on wheels and dealing with a toilet on a timer. A simple “thanks” or “gratitude” as one cellie passes a tray to another is customary. Early in the morning, when bladders are full after a night’s sleep, the proper protocol is to ask one’s cellie if they need to use the toilet before you flush it. These common kindnesses were nonexistent between us.

Our cell’s atmosphere was rife with violence just waiting to erupt. I greeted Tory’s every look and movement with suspicion and tightened muscles. I was ready to spring into action if the need to defend myself arose. My guts were in a constant state of turmoil, twisting and churning with a steady drip of anxious adrenaline and the dread of anticipation. It felt like I was caged with an animal, a predator ready to turn me into its prey. Tory was taller than me and much more muscular. To say that my chances in a fight with him, especially a fair one, were not good would be an enormous and egregious understatement.

He started talking out loud to his TV. Then he began directing mumbled curses and threats at me, and I found myself strategizing about the inevitable confrontation.

teeth-mike-tyson-400a071807_46750172Being on the top bunk, I figured I had the higher ground and, therefore, the upper hand. At the very least, it was a position I could use to my advantage. I played scenarios in my head, trying to come up with one that didn’t end with me completely beaten and contused. By my estimation, after a kick to his face, my best strategy would be to recruit gravity and simply crush him with my ample bodyweight with as little dignity and decorum as possible. Having completed that complex maneuver, the plan would be similarly simple: avoid his fists and if the opportunity presented itself, punch his unprotected face. As a last resort, I’d do my best to impersonate Mike Tyson in his infamous bout with Evander Holyfield. With all my infinite powers of imagination, that was my master plan, the best I could come up with. Thankfully, it never came to that.

The constant tension and terror, the endless looking over my shoulder, and the fear he would jump me at any moment finally found some release when the lockdown was lifted. Inside the cell, we still spoke not a word, but at least we had a few minutes or as much as an hour when we didn’t have to be in each other’s face. This didn’t solve the problem, and I hated daydreaming about my fantasy of violence that I dreaded having to put into action. Even if I defied the odds and emerged victorious from an altercation between the two of us, our tiny cell was comprised solely of concrete and steel. We both would’ve incurred injuries and earned a stint in Seg—not to mention the inevitable loss of property that comes with a trip there, as one’s box passes from one set of sticky fingers to another.

After nineteen long days of uncomfortable quiet, Tory was suddenly told to pack his belongings. His appeal had been granted; he was going home the next day. The morning of our twentieth day on no talk was my birthday, and with 45 minutes left on his prison sentence, Tory suddenly became the talkative, good-natured guy I had never known him to be.

He started talking directly to me, and he went on and on effusively about how I’m doing my time well. He encouraged me to just keep behaving the way I had been. According to him, my final decade of prison would just fly right by if I stuck to my same routine—the same behaviors that, an hour before, he had regarded with antipathy. He acted magnanimously, as if he was speaking from a place of great wisdom and understanding, even though he’d only been down a couple years longer than I had.

When Tory finally left, he wished me luck. I thanked him, told him to be good. All the insane and illogical animosity evacuated the cell with him. I could breathe easily; at last, I could take a deep breath unhindered. It was as if I’d been holding my breath for the better part of a month. Tory’s departure still stands as the best birthday present I’ve ever had in prison. Then, as was the institutional practice at the time, my commissary order was delivered right to my cell. Due to the lockdown and the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, it had been well over a month since the last commissary, so it was perfect timing. I was able to re-up on the essentials of coffee and hygiene items, as well as get some extra food. I spent the rest of my special day in relaxation, watching a couple of my favorite TV shows, and making a celebratory meal for myself. It was a beautiful, uplifting, and joyful day—especially after so many filled with worry and strain.

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