Utter Joy

His utter joy put my grief to shame.


Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own lives, problems, worries and hurts that a cocoon develops. This structure is meant to insulate us from harm, but in so doing it isolates us from the world around us. It also traps in the pain. This is never a good thing. At the time, I was entombed in my own grief and self-pity.


Around this time I took a survey for one of the college courses I managed to complete while incarcerated. I was instructed to put a check next to every major life event that I’d experienced within the previous twelve months. Stressful things like death of a friend, death of a family member, divorce, moving to a new city. Each was assigned a numeric value.

When everyone had finished adding up their history of stressors the professor revealed that anyone with a stress number over 100 was at risk for all kinds of physical and psychological maladies due to their extremely high stress level. She encouraged those in that category to take steps to counter the stress because of the potentially unhealthy psychological and physical effects. She recommended seeking out a counselor to talk to and lauded the benefits of deep breathing. My score was nearly four times that–385. I laughed. Deep breathing exercises were not the solution to all my problems.

What I Deserve

I’d suffered too much. It felt like I was losing some psychological war of attrition that the universe had been waging against me. Divorce, deaths, prolonged imprisonment, broken relationships. I was deeply entrenched in my unhealthy mentality. I couldn’t get out of it. I didn’t want to. I was comfortable in my chrysalis of self-loathing and silent lamentation. Mental masochism can be a terribly seductive pastime, especially when we’ve deceived ourselves into thinking that we deserve to suffer. Suffice it to say, I was in a very bad place. It took a blind man to show me the way.

Tray Pusher

I was working in the chow hall, on the serving line where trays were filled and passed to the unending line of inmates. I’d risen through the ranks swiftly and had the coveted position of tray pusher. I was responsible for controlling the flow of trays. Without me there would be chaos and piles of food on the floor. I’ve always thrived in stressful high-stakes work environments.

This day in particular was burger and fries day, which is cause for celebration for most inmates. I couldn’t have cared less. Joy wasn’t a thing with which I was well acquainted. It probably didn’t help that I’d had to deal with an endless string of threats, insults, and accusations of being “The Police” (pronounced with an exaggerated hard “PO” sound, and a terribly offensive thing for one inmate to say to another) because I wouldn’t put more fries or an extra patty on their tray. No one seemed to care that the four foot eleven tiny tyrant Food Supervisor always at me hip would’ve caught and reprimanded me if I had tried to add a single kernel of corn or extra ketchup packet to the assigned portion.

Illegal Tandem

I was floundering in a mire of my own making. Standing at the front of the serving line, running on autopilot, pushing trays and letting the insults from inmates wash over me while the admonishments from my superior needled my back. Towards the front of the single file stream of inmates making their way to the tray pick up window there was a duo walking side by side, which is a grave violation of policy, and one which is usually met by C/Os yelling and gesticulating like feral idiots. So, naturally their tandem nature caught my attention immediately. It wasn’t until the pair were three people from me that I saw the closest man’s unseeing gaze and noticed that he had the other man’s upper arm in a loose grip to guide him. It was when the blind man asked his aid a question that I received my lesson.


“What are we having?”

“Burgers and fries.”

The blind man’s face blossomed with the purest expression of joy that I could have ever possibly conjured in my most vivid of imaginings. Where there had been merely bland features, life and animation appeared as if conjured by some incantation. Three simple magical words: burgers and fries.


His enthusiastic response wasn’t yelled loudly, but had an emphasis and relish that conveyed how fortunate and blessed he felt to be receiving such a beloved meal. His ability to express such depth of emotion and delight over such a seemingly insignificant event was sobering to me. The experience put a crack in my emotional barricade and forced me to confront my toxic wallowing. It began to nurture a change in perspective within me.

Renewed Mind

Every good thing is a gift, and should be received with the same awe, joy, and gratitude displayed by children on Christmas morning as they tear at packages to reveal the coveted present they’d been so longing for. This pertains to the clothes on our backs, the music in our ears and hearts, the breathe in our lungs, and the food on our plates to name just a few. In my insular grief I’d lost sight of this truth, and had to be shown the way by the unseeing.

Burgers and fries have that kind of power.

That’s why it’s called a happy meal.




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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Wait, what is this all about?”

photo by nattavut www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by nattavut

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

Oh. Your grandma’s dead.”

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

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

Remember, five minutes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You ready?” Whyler asked.

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

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

I nodded my head vigorously.

The chaplain?”

I nodded again, not trusting myself to speak.

All right. I’ll let him know.”

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

I gotta lock you up now.”

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

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

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

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