Porcupine Chicken

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

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

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

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

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

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

A spoonful, chew twice, swallow. Repeat.

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

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

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

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

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The Fastidious Squirrel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lunch and a Show

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This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on Amazon.com now.
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You’re a bitch,” Gary sneered. Then, as if one utterance of that loaded word wasn’t enough, he repeated it. “You’re nothing but a little bitch.” Finally, he upped the ante. “You say it to me one time, say it, and I bet I beat your little bitch ass.”

I’d only just sat down, but the animosity in the air was palpable, and the tension mounted before culminating in the angry threat. Gary was a bully, and his latest beef was with Trey, who was sitting across from him at the four-person table in the chow hall. I could see that Gary was trying to goad him into a fight, and I could see, too, that it was working. In prison, “bitch” is the gravest of insults, and to call someone that in public was akin to throwing down the gauntlet. To let it happen without standing up for oneself is to lose face, invite ridicule, and have it presumed that the slur is justified.

When I saw Trey’s back stiffen and his shoulders pull themselves taut, I began to force food into my mouth because I knew what was coming next. Time was of the essence.

You’re a bitch.” It was said so meekly, quietly, almost begrudgingly as if he didn’t actually want to say it but felt he had no other recourse. Gary was out of his seat and around the table in half an instant, punching Trey before he even had a chance to stand. The poor guy never had much of a chance anyway. They were both only five-nine or so, but Gary was a solid and stout 185 pounds with a half-and-half mix of muscle and fat that made him deceptively formidable. Trey was all thin limbs and at least thirty pounds lighter than Gary. After absorbing a few haymakers to the face and chest, Trey managed to flail out a loose fist and poke Gary in the eye with an errant finger. It wasn’t exactly a victory, but it gave him a little confidence. Mostly, though, it just pissed Gary off.

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I swallowed a chunk of hamburger and chased it with a couple tater tots, trying to clear my tray as fast as I could.

Gary swung rage-fueled right and left hooks that looked impressive but mostly missed his target. The target backed away from the onslaught, bumping into tables and blindly tripping over the legs of people who had turned around in their seats to view the spectacle. Even in retreat, Trey managed to land a couple of weak punches on Gary’s chest, but they didn’t slow him down or even seem to faze him at all.

I glanced to one side to see if any officers or loos on duty in the chow hall were paying attention, but for that brief window of time, not a single one was in sight.

Ketchup drooled over my lip as I swallowed mechanically and slurped lukewarm milk to lubricate the process.

When I returned my gaze to the show, Gary’s eyebrow was bleeding. Trey must have slipped him a good one when I wasn’t looking, but that only made him cocky. Trey overstepped, literally, as he lunged forward to swing on Gary. Instead, he slipped on the slick floor and went down hard. Gary collapsed onto his victim, and it was all one-sided from there.

I was chewing my final bite of burger when a white shirt finally made an appearance.

Hey!” the loo yelled. He keyed the panic button on his radio, even as a couple C/Os appeared to flank him. The roiling mass of humanity that was Gary and his outmatched opponent had rolled and slid ten feet across the floor until the outside wall of the chow hall had halted their progress. Gary pressed his body against Trey, pinned him helpless to the wall, and drilled his head with repeated hard right jabs.

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I lowered my shoulders toward my tray, keeping my head up so I could look back and forth from the oncoming authority figures and the continuing skirmish, and shoveled the remaining ketchup-smeared tater tot bits and mushy mixed vegetables into my eager mouth. I knew it was important to eat all I could before what would come next.

The overweight white shirt ran as fast as his ample girth would allow. The two C/Os passed him easily while yelling, “Stop, let him go, lay down on the floor!” Gary kept beating Trey’s head mercilessly.

I kept watching it all unfold, chewing as little as necessary before forcing the food down my throat.

The loo slowed enough to retrieve something from a pouch on his belt before continuing toward the fracas. He was yelling something unintelligible as he gasped for air. A small canister was in his meaty hand, and he held it in front of him at arm’s length as he ran. I had a brief flash of a memory from my childhood. Then pandemonium ensued.

pepper_spray_cop_DonkeyHotey_Flickr_comm_okThe recollection from my youth revolved around an old Jim Croce song—music of that character and quality is what I was weaned on. “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” was the song, and the specific lyric was “…you don’t spit into the wind…” As a kid, I didn’t understand why not; I couldn’t grasp the physics of it. So one day, pedaling my yellow BMX bicycle as fast as my little legs could pump, I sped down the sidewalk of my idyllic neighborhood and hocked a major loogie right into the breeze blowing against my face. The spit smeared across my cheek and eye, providing me a valuable understanding of the lyric that had so confounded me. It appeared, unfortunately, that the fat lieutenant had never been a fan of Mr. Croce.

With his belly stressing the buttons of his shirt, the loo sped along. He began to yell again, and as he did, he pressed the button on the canister. A thick stream sprayed out before dissipating into a mist. The loo ran right into his own pepper spray just as he encountered the same slick patch of floor that had been Trey’s undoing. His entire portly frame went momentarily airborne—even as he choked on the spray—while he still held the button down and covered the entire area with the noxious fog. It wasn’t until his mighty shuddering collision with the floor that he finally stopped spraying.

The chow hall became a cacophony of conflicting howls and screams. The C/Os yelled for the fighters to release each other; the loo hollered in pain as he clutched his lower back with one hand while covering his burning eyes with the other. Inmates in the pepper-sprayed region coughed and cried out against the itchy pain in their eyes, nose, and throat. Thankfully, I was fifteen feet from the epicenter of the incident, so I was spared the worst of it.

More C/Os rushed onto the scene, hacking and yelling their way into the area and then gagging on the particulates of pepper spray polluting the atmosphere. There were moans and groans as officers struggled to control and cuff the fighters while a few other C/Os tried to heave the loo to his feet without causing him too much pain. Even as the C/Os tried to escape from the field of foul air, they yelled at inmates to sit down and stay where they were. As swiftly as the loo and officers had arrived on the scene, they all retreated—vanished—leaving behind only the awful cloud and a few splashes of blood on the wall courtesy of Gary and Trey.

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The C/O in the gun tower displayed himself and his weapon prominently to ensure that peace ensued, but he was unnecessary. No one was in the mood to fight. Every inmate, to varying degrees, was coping with his watering and stinging eyes, tickling and tingling nose, and interminably itchy throat that comes with exposure to pepper spray. We sat like that, suffering, chemicals floating in the air, for forty-five minutes in the enclosed space without a single open door or window that would allow the place to air out.

It would have been impossible to eat anything, so while I, too, endured the discomfort, I didn’t have to do it on an empty stomach. I counted that as a minor victory.