Gordie’s Devolution

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When Gordie told me he was “gonna beat Kent’s ass,” I took it to be little more than bravado and blowing off steam. I empathized—understood completely his ire and outrage—so I let him vent. Never did I think that the meek and mild kid who had been my cellie over a year before would resort to the type of epic violence he was describing. A year in prison can change a man immensely.

After Gordie went to Seg for horseplay and I lost him as my cellie, I kept track of him as best I could. He fell in with an older crowd, guys who had been in prison longer than Gordie had been on the planet, and they schooled him in the nuances of doing time and practicing what they felt was appropriate racial enmity towards those with skin color of a decidedly darker shade. Since I only saw Gordie in passing every once in a great while and could only occasionally send a message through a third party, I no longer had much sway or influence over him. When he was moved back to my cell house and wing, I was happy to see him, but taken somewhat aback by his revamped persona.

His once open and easy-to-smile face held a perpetual scowl, and a cloud that hung over him kept most people at bay. He seemed interminably angry. I’d known him to be upset, to throw an occasional tantrum or have a bitch fit to complain about whatever was bothering him. This new element of his personality was entirely removed from that type of fleeting emotion; this was closer to a deeply felt and abiding rage.

Gordie had once confided in me that, due to his largely rural and sheltered upbringing, he had never actually seen a black person in real life, only on TV. As he was processed through the intake joint, he had been surrounded by hundreds of men of color, mostly from the inner city, spouting slang and profanity in their own patois. This was quite a culture shock for young Gordie. The vehement and vitriolic racist rhetoric Gordie had picked up in the year since he’d been my cellie was a shock for me. Hate speech peppered with racial slurs twisted his lips in a sneer of scorn; I had trouble believing that Gordie’s words reflected his true feelings. The racism was a perfect conduit for his newly cultivated rage, but as I saw it, the root of Gordie’s problem was his temper.

photo by Victor Habbick www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by Victor Habbick
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

When Kent got caught getting tattooed in his cell, he was sent to Seg. He blamed Gordie for it, claiming that Gordie snitched on him. The “logic” employed in Kent’s argument for Gordie’s guilt was that Gordie, being a porter, had a freedom of movement on the deck that others didn’t, so Gordie was one of the only people who knew what was going on in Kent’s cell. While the notion of Gordie snitching is certainly a possibility, Kent was also a complete jackstick who went around showing off his fresh tats to EVERYONE. It’s more likely that someone else dimed on Kent and his cellie, but Kent believed it was Gordie. It wasn’t long before word got around that Kent was shooting his mouth off in Seg, telling everyone that Gordie was a snitching little bitch and that when he got out of Seg he was going to beat the breaks off Gordie. When Gordie heard about all the character defamation that Kent was aiming in his direction, he was livid.

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Gordie went absolutely berserk; he ranted and raved about how badly he would assault and injure Kent if he ever got his hands on him. I fully understood his indignation and desire to seek retribution upon the person who was so grievously lying about him. Furthermore, prison “logic” dictated that if Gordie were to just let it slide and allow Kent to get away with his supposedly false claims, it would mean that Kent had more than likely been telling the truth. During his lengthy rant, Gordie drew upon his recently adopted ideals of white racial superiority and purity, impugning Kent’s character and worth because—even though he was a white guy—his mannerisms, behavior, speech patterns, and use of slang, as well as his musical preferences, all closely resembled those of the average black inmate. Gordie proclaimed that it would be his duty and honor to hurt Kent, who he deemed to be a disgrace to his race. The entire discourse was so far removed from the Gordie that I had first met, the Gordie I thought I knew seemed to be long gone.

When Kent got out of Seg, he came right back to the same cell house. (Although, to be accurate, he never quite made it to the house.) Since he had gone to Seg for tattooing, there was no official reason on record for Gordie and Kent to be kept separated. Through a window at the back of the deck, Gordie spied Kent coming. Gordie had been loitering on the deck, having completed his few assigned tasks as a porter, and was waiting for the bubble officer to announce that the chow line was on the walk. This announcement was expected at any moment. Gordie hurried to the front of the deck, to the door that opened to an entryway, which in turn led to the walk right outside the building. When Gordie neared the door, the announcement echoed through the gallery as if it had been timed to the nanosecond. “Chow line walking!” Just like the parting of the Red Sea for the children of Israel, Gordie’s path was made clear as both doors were electronically buzzed open, and he was allowed passage without an instant of scrutiny. After all, to all appearances he was just a hungry inmate heading to lunch.

www.freedigitalphotos.net
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

Gordie was a slim, thin-limbed guy who stood about five-foot-nine and probably weighed between a hundred and fifty and a hundred and sixty-five pounds. Not exactly intimidating. Kent, on the other hand, had a physique that had clearly been shaped by weights and an advantage over Gordie of a couple inches and thirty pounds. It looked like it would be a lopsided bout, and not in Gordie’s favor.

Gordie walked straight up to Kent and punched him square in the nose with more force than I would’ve thought him capable. They were outside, in a corridor of sorts that was twenty feet long and five feet wide and bordered by fences on either side. This configuration was designed to corral inmates, but as Kent slammed into the fence, it also left him with no avenue of escape. Gordie didn’t say a single word as he hit him twice more in the face. Kent’s knees buckled and he slumped forward—flopping to the ground like he’d become unarticulated and was little more than a slack sack of flesh and bone.

Gordie appeared to have come unhinged as he descended upon Kent without pause, arms like pistons and fists like ball-peen hammers finding all of Kent’s soft spots. It was such a sudden and overwhelming beatdown as to be practically incomprehensible—the senses rejected it as impossible. Kent didn’t put up a fight. He didn’t even raise his hands as a defense. While Kent lay there, Gordie kept hitting him. He was a man possessed—nothing like the Gordie I’d once known.

Officers finally converged to pull Gordie off of his victim, and he was escorted to Seg immediately. Kent needed a stretcher to be escorted anywhere. Gordie was shipped out to another joint without delay, and I have no idea where he ended up. I also don’t know what kind of disciplinary actions were taken against him for his violent assault. What I do know is that I wish I didn’t retain the image of Gordie so thoroughly dismantling a man. I prefer to remember him as he was when we first met and were cellies for six months. I’m not sure that particular version of Gordie exists anymore, and I fear that it probably never will again.

Poor Gordie

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// The angry, wet sound of his violent regurgitation still reverberates through the finite space of my mind the same way it bounced around the confined space of our cell.

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His hair was short and so blond it looked like nothing more than peach fuzz above an oval face. His softened features made him look closer to age twelve or thirteen rather than the nineteen going on twenty that he was. Not a single hair would grow on his chubby baby face. Gordie was in no way impressive or formidable.

At the time, he’d only been down about four months and was still more or less fresh off the bus, so I did what I could to show him the ropes. He’d already had some rotten cellies who had bullied him, and his lengthy sentence meant he would spend nearly as much time behind prison walls as he had spent outside the womb. I felt sorry for him and protective of him, which only made my dilemma that much more troubling.

photo by David Castillo Dominici www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by David Castillo Dominici
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

The incident happened one morning after breakfast. Our trays usually arrived around 4:00 a.m. every morning through the chuck holebreakfast in bed. Gordie had only been in the cell a couple of weeks. During that time, he had mostly just slept and quietly watched some television. We had yet to build the rapport and camaraderie we would eventually enjoy.

My days began with the chuck hole slamming open for breakfast, acting as my alarm clock. Then I was up for the day, trying to scribble my legacy on yellow legal pads. Gordie’s routine to that point had been to finally rouse for the day sometime around noon (though he’d be back down for an afternoon nap around three). For breakfast, Gordie had been in the habit of barely raising his head off the mat to ask me what was on the tray, and then saying I could have it before rolling back to face the wall and slip back into slumber. On the morning in question, I instantly knew something was off because Gordie declared, “I don’t want it,” before the trays had even been delivered. Then he lay there on his back staring at the ceiling, wide awake.

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I ate dutifully, unceremoniously—an automatic act, a reflex. Trays enter full and exit empty: mission accomplished. Food was fuel and nothing more. But on this day, Gordie kept poking his head over the edge of his bunk to peer down and spy on me. It was unnatural, unnerving, and disturbing. I didn’t think I would have to tell him not to do it any more, that it’s not cool–because I figured that not doing it was only common sense. However, if prison has taught me anything, it’s that “common sense” to some is absolutely foreign to others. I opened my mouth, prepared to ask him if something was wrong and instruct him not to hang his head over my food tray and watch me eat. But Gordie spoke before I could.

Are you done eating?”

This caught me off guard. There was a curt anxiousness to his tone, and it took a moment of pause for my brain to kick out words.

Yeah. Yeah, I’m done.” As if to prove my point, I shoveled the last bit of slimy scrambled eggs into my mouth, snapped the lids back on the Lunchables, and placed them back on the chuck hole for retrieval by the breakfast porter. Even as I was doing that, Gordie was cautiously stepping his way down to the bar at the end of the bed that served as a ladder. He was clearly taking great pains to move gingerly but as swiftly as possible. I was confused, but only for a moment. After he grabbed his bedsheet and pulled it down after him, I thought I knew what was happening and couldn’t help but smirk in the early morning darkness.

Just because a person is locked behind a steel door with another man, the basic biological need to eliminate waste doesn’t disappear. As the popular children’s book so succinctly put it: everybody poops. The proper protocol is to stretch one’s bedsheet across the cell to act as a privacy curtain. Technically this is illegal, as it obstructs the officer’s view of the entire cell, but only the biggest of Robocop C/Os actually write a ticket for it. Most of them understand that we’re just trying to cover our shame—a human instinct born moments after Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the serpent, thereby damning us all.

miami beach 411When I saw Gordie drag his bedsheet down and begin to affix it to the foot rail at the end of the bed, I grinned at the thought of him squirming in his bunk and squeezing his cheeks as he held the urge to defecate in order to let me eat breakfast in peace. It was both a funny and a touching notion—that he would endure discomfort just so I wouldn’t have to eat a crappy breakfast. But I was wrong. Gordie did not have to go number two.

Ordinarily, once the sheet is in place, only an inmate’s feet are visible—sometimes not even that. Instead, Gordie’s legs shot out below the sheet towards where I sat on my bottom bunk as he dropped down to his knees in front of the steel toilet, like a devout worshiper before his altar. But the sounds I heard next were not prayers of any kind that I was familiar with. Instead there was a sudden, unexpected, assault on my ears that seemed like the cries of a small but determined animal in a brutal struggle with something slick and slippery—an unearthly entity. Hoarse retches were followed by the inevitable wet splashes as whatever he’d eaten that hadn’t agreed with him made its encore appearance in the toilet bowl.

I steeled my stomach against any notions it might have harbored of showing sympathy or symmetry in regurgitation. I reached for the knob that controlled the window to let in some air, but I was too late to prevent the sour stench from making my eyes water and my throat tighten involuntarily in its own reflexive retch. The rank aroma permeated every available cubic inch of air. The open window let in a freezing winter blast, but provided no relief. Unfazed, Gordie continued spilling the contents of his guts into the toilet, making sad, lonely noises in between expulsions like some pathetic, wounded creature.

Once I overcame my initial shock and revulsion, I searched back in my history for some mental construct or protocol as to how to act in a situation like this. The last vomiting person I’d been in close proximity to was my wife. I had held her hair back to keep it from getting befouled by the puke, rubbed her back in slow, soothing circles, and cooed quiet, loving phrases meant to calm and comfort her pained groans and mumbled moans. Now, though I felt sympathy for his plight and even protective of young Gordie as some type of surrogate little brother, I was fairly certain that a similar reaction on my part might be perceived as odd. Instead, I did what I thought was the next best thing.

Are you okay?” I asked. Possibly the dumbest and most idiotic, pointless query in the history of questions. Gordie’s only response was more throat-tearing, gagging grunts followed by heavy splashes and whimpers of recovery before the next round of regurgitation. I quieted myself and let him be sick in peace.

I thought again about my wife and how I had babied and cared for her when she was sick. I thought of my mother, the person from whom I had learned all my caregiving techniques. She had soothed all my childhood illnesses and cleaned up all my boyhood vomit. Gordie was not my wife, and I was not his mother, but no one who is legitimately ill should have to clean up his own mess. The idea did not thrill me one bit, but once he seemed to be done, I did what I perceived was the right thing to do in the strange curve ball of a circumstance that life had pitched me.

photo courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

Are you alright, Gordie?” (Again with the stupid questions.) “You need any help? Anything I can do?” While I was fully prepared to assist, I was also secretly, desperately hoping I would not have to face any puke up close and personal that day. After a long pause, during which only a few sniffles from Gordie could be heard, he finally answered.

No. I got it.”

Blessed relief flooded me, but my better nature reacted before I could squelch it. “Are you sure?” I asked. No! I was off the hook! Why would I volunteer again? But I was fretting over nothing. Whether it was out of pride or shame or some other notion, Gordie refused my assistance.

The pungent citrus smell of the laundry detergent available on commissary filled the cell. It supplanted the puke smell as Gordie dutifully took a soapy rag to clean the steel of the toilet and sink, then the concrete wall and floor that had likely suffered collateral damage during his violent vomiting. I remained silent throughout, as did Gordie, who then wordlessly crawled into bed and lay motionless for a dozen hours.

My sympathy for my cellie was deep and genuine, but that did him no good. In fact, it seemed he couldn’t catch a break, not even from me, and I could only conceive one notion to sum up the whole screwy situation. Poor Gordie.

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