The Conundrum

Jake was wary as he eased his way hesitantly toward the door from which the voice was coming. There was only darkness from within the cell, which gave the disembodied voice the eerie effect of calling to him from an endless malevolent void. Jake knew from experience that it was ill advised, and potentially dangerous, to get too close to the cell doors. He worked in a psych joint, specifically the section that served to keep confined the most violent and/or unpredictable inmates who suffer from various and often severe mental health issues. Even with only a perforated steel grate through which the inmate could get to him, Jake had witnessed spit, shit, and piss pass through the small holes on multiple occasions. When the chuckhole was open, a deluge of waste and refuse could pour out. Yet even armed with this knowledge, Jake continued to advance upon the door from behind which someone was calling his name.

Fair Warning
“Hey, man. Hey, Jake. Howyadoin’, man? Look, you’ve always been cool with me, never had any problem with you. You’re good with me, ya know? So I just wanted to give you a heads up. As soon as that C/O opens this chuckhole, I’ve got a whole cup of shit I’ve saved up for him, and it’s going in his face. Just so you know. You might want to stay back. Okay, Jake. Thanks.” The man’s tone was matter-of-fact, friendly, calm, casual. He could have been discussing a movie he saw recently, or the outcome of some sporting event rather than a planned fecal barrage. Once he fell silent, the man receded into his cell, leaving Jake to wrestle with what to do.

Dilemma
Jake worked amongst this collection of mentally unstable men five days a week and had managed to cultivate a decent rapport with many of them. It made for a slightly less stressful work environment and worked to keep him from becoming a target for an attack. All of that goodwill that he had built up, however, would evaporate if it were to be discovered that he had warned the C/O of the impending shit storm headed his way.

The warning would be perceived as snitching and make Jake ripe for revenge. On the other hand, if Jake didn’t tell the officer about the planned poop-throwing, blame would almost certainly land in his lap which would result in him probably being fired or worse. While this particular officer had always been cool with Jake, a C/O with a face full of feces is an unpredictable but volatile individual. Jake waffled over the decision briefly, but he knew what had to be done.

Betrayal?
Each chuckhole door slammed open on its hinge with metronomic regularity. With every turn of his key and resounding metallic bang that resulted, the C/O edged ever closer to the cell where a calamity of crap awaited him. Upon arriving at the door in question, the C/O inserted his key as usual, but paused before turning it. “Back away from the door, “ he instructed the unseen inmate within. After a lengthy silence, there finally came a hesitant response.

“What? Um…no. Open my chuckhole; I want my food. Give it to me.”

“I said back up. Get away from the door.” The C/O had adopted his full-throated authoritative voice—similar to the tone a trainer would use to command dogs. “Back away or you can go hungry.” The C/O awaited a cogent response, and Jake stood to the side with a tray at the ready as it was his duty to pass it in through the chuckhole once it was opened–provided, of course, that poop wasn’t on its way out through said chuckhole.

Without warning, a bestial and unnerving noise erupted from the cell, a sound of equal parts frustration and rage. These were also the sentiments that colored what was said next.

“Jake! You told! You told, Jake! You’re a snitch!”

The C/O had enough presence of mind to backpedal with haste, and the splattering of excrement that managed to force its way through the small holes of the perforated steel window was minimal and ineffectual. The unstable inmate had mostly managed to merely splash his own waste back in his own face and coat the inside of his cell door with it. As Jake and the C/O bypassed the befouled cell and continued passing out trays, the disgruntled inmate carried on with his hollering of accusations concerning Jake.

Conflicted
It was a long two months of taking extra precautions and keeping his head on a swivel to avoid any payback before Jake was able to get a different job and get away from the house of the severely mentally ill. He didn’t exactly feel guilty for informing the C/O, but it also didn’t quite sit right with him that he had broken the trust of the feces-flinging inmate. It wasn’t snitching in Jake’s estimation, but rather something more like a gray area, and he never did come to accept what he had done.

 

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Nobody Wins

“Oh yeah? That’s nothing, I’ve got you beat; check this out . . .”

I had just regaled Tee with a tale of the disgusting conditions of the officer’s bathroom that I had to clean every morning. Unfortunately he interpreted this as my throwing down the gauntlet for a competition to see who had the grossest feces cleaning story. I gleaned from the gleeful glint in his eyes that I was about to lose a contest I had never intended to enter.

Storytime

“Okay, so, I’d only been working in Seg as a porter for, like, maybe a week or so. So I didn’t know about this one dude yet. So, I come in one day and the CO tells me that this guy, the one I didn’t know about, was sent back to STC with the rest of the looney-tunes, and I had to clean out his cell. Turns out this guy was, like, a regular visitor in SEG. He was a psych dude who would bug up and freak out bad enough to get sent to SEG. You know, like, hit a CO or a psych doctor or an inmate. Something bad enough to get to SEG. He was basically famous. Everyone knew about him except me. So I had no idea what I was walking into. They just told me to put on some gloves, grab a rag and bottle of bleach.”

Surprise!

“As soon as I opened the door to the cell it was like I got punched right smack in the face by the smell. It was so nasty so strong. I caught a throat full of it and thought I was gonna puke for real. I had to walk away, but before I did I saw that there was clothes and bedding crumpled and piled up like a rat’s nest. And everything was covered in shit.

“My two coworkers were standing off to the side laughing their asses off, and even the CO wasn’t trying to hide his grin, but he told me that it still had to be cleaned out. He gave me some heavy duty rubber gloves instead of the cheap latex ones I had and a little paper surgical mask they had laying around and tried sending me back in there, but I was like ‘hell-no!’ I had to have more than that.”

Ingenuity

“So I went and got me some big, like, fifty gallon garbage bags. I put one on each foot and tied them on really tight so that they covered me good up to my knees. Then I poke holes in another one for my head and arms, and put it on like a poncho, but tied a bag around my waist like a belt so that stayed against my body instead of poofing out. I wrapped more bags around my arms and tied them tight before I put the gloves on. Over the paper mask I tied a clean T-shirt to better cover my face and mouth. It was like my own homemade hazmat suit. That was about as ready as I was gonna get, so I went back to the shitty cell.”

Hazardous Material

“Now, usually, when I clean a cell I toss all the clothes and blankets and stuff into the laundry bin to go into the washing machine, but this time it was all soaked through with piss and sweat and funk. There was so much poop smeared and smashed into it so I just had to gather it up and I threw it straight into the garbage. Turns out that the guy didn’t actually sleep on his bunk, but he laid in a pile of clothes, blankets and sheets. There was layer after layer that I had to peel free and toss.

“My little mask didn’t really do much of anything to block out the smell, but it was still better than nothing. I ended up retching and dry-heaving, like, twenty times. I came so close to puking, my eyes were watering. I took a break and shoved wads of toilet paper up my nose, and that actually made a difference, but I could only take small shallow breaths through my mouth because whenever I took a deep breath it would hit the back of my throat like a funky little fist and make me feel like barfing. It was rough, man. It was super rough.”

Finale

“It probably took me, like, an hour, hour-an-a-half to get it all out of there. I actually had my watch on, but I couldn’t check it without peeking back layers of plastic to get to it, so I just had to guess how long I had been at it. Once I had it all out, my job was really just starting because then I had to scrape and scrub every square inch in there.

“Shit was still everywhere. Wet and fresh, gummier than pudding, and old crusty dried streaks of it. On the walls, the ceiling, the floor, the bed, the sink, the door. It was unreal, man. I nearly puked, like, a hundred more times. It was so bad. I just kept gathering goop in my hands and flushing it, trying not to think about it. Flushing and swabbing and scrubbing. I was just finishing up when they told me it was my time to go back to the cell-house. My shift was over; I’d been cleaning in there for close to five hours.

“And you know what? They told me that was the fourth time the guy had done that. And they just let him. They don’t try to stop him or get the psych doctor to talk to him, they just let him build his crap nest and redecorate the place for days or even weeks. It sick, man.”

Victor

With his rebuttal tale finally told, I was left peering at Tee through a grimace of disgust and a sneer of revulsion. I had not wanted to hear that. I suppose I had only myself to blame by raising the topic of terrible turd centric narratives. I couldn’t think of anything much to say in response to the inhuman behavior and inhuman treatment he had just described. After listening to him I felt there wasn’t anyone involved who could be crowned a victor, but I merely conceded.

“Alright, Tee, yeah. You win, man.”

 

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.

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.

Choke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” I said.

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

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