Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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After fourteen years of yard-walking a life sentence, Broadus Creek wore the mask of a traveler, implacably intent upon his route but thoroughly fortified against destination. Day after day he explored his realm in the green shirt much too large for him and the green pants so short that six inches of white skin showed between the high-water cuffs and the paper-thin gray socks collapsed about his spindly ankles.
Miles and miles he walked, halting only when he found a sharp object. Then he’d bend and pick it up as if it were a piece of a great puzzle he was assembling. Even during storms he’d leave the cellblock to pound the yard, a constant shattering in his head, a horseshoe in each raised hand, daring lightning to strike. And it was when the moon filled like a great white magnet that he’d spy the kid hanging around the fence or crying his heart out in the horseshoe pit.
The kid was a first-timer who bunked below Broadus. He couldn’t remember the kid’s name, so he called him Cryin’ Shame. Shame was good-looking and young — too young, it seemed to Broadus, to be in such a place — and he started getting hammered the second he walked in with his long brown hair tied in braids. He had soft, sheepish eyes, wore a cross in his ear, and had pinned to his shirt a little blue button of a white bird flying above the word Peace.
Broadus sat on the examining table, his feet barely touching the concrete floor. The nurse, plump and gorgeous, was on the phone. “Blue cheese,” she said, “extra blue cheese.” When she hung up, she looked at him and smiled. “I’ll be right back, Broadus. Lie down if you feel dizzy. The aspirin will probably help.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, watching her tiptoe out of the room. Gingerly, he slid off the table, walked over to her desk, and picked up a stapler. He cracked it open on its hinge and put it to the side of his head, close to the crown, then pressed until it clicked and a staple forked into his scalp.
When the nurse returned with her salad, Broadus was asleep. She held his wrist for half a minute, threw a horse blanket over him, and sat down to eat.
In his dream, the nurse invited Broadus to share her lunch. When they had finished eating, he put his bristly head in her lap and she stroked it. Then she took a stickpin from her lapel, removed one of her slender shoes, and with expert taps of her delicate heel drove the pin into Broadus’s skull so that all that was visible was its head, which was inscribed, Praise God.
When he awoke, his headache was gone. The nurse was at her desk filling out reports. She looked up and inquired pleasantly, “How’s your head?”
“Right much better, I believe, ma’am.”
“Good.” She fished in her drawer and placed two white tablets in a tiny envelope, then handed it to Broadus. “Here are more aspirin if you need them later.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, taking the envelope. “I sure appreciate it.”
Broadus left the nurse’s office and hit the yard. It was a gloomy day, getting toward fall, already half dark by seven. He could see Shame at the weight bench across the yard, silhouetted against the fence. He walked four times around the yard and then headed over to the bench. Shame was doing bench presses, his shirt off. There were about sixty or seventy pounds on the bar, and he struggled and heaved with each rep. He was skinny, and his chest and back were hairless and smooth as glass. On each arm was a tattoo; one said Mary, the other, Mom.
Broadus sat down on the end of the next bench. Shame ignored him. Broadus picked up off the ground a five-pound weight and said, “Why’d you have to bunk under me?”
Shame acted like Broadus was invisible, never said a word, just kept wheezing under that iron. Broadus pulled out of his shirt pocket a hypodermic needle he’d taken from the nurse’s office and started popping it into his head with the weight. Shame rested the barbell in the brackets and sat up facing Broadus, who kept at it until the needle found its way in. It was nearly dark, so Broadus couldn’t tell whether Shame was looking at him.
Shame was terrified when the jukers slid into his bunk at night, which made them like it even better. “No, please,” he squeaked sweetly, as if the horror had turned to honey in his throat. Up top, patching his scalp with the thorns that grew wild in the yard, Broadus tried not to listen. When they were done working on Shame, they kicked Christ out of him, then padded back to their scurvy bedclothes. Pleading even after they’d gone, Shame coughed everything back up, weeping. Still heaving, he dropped to the concrete for push-ups, his arms barely working until he passed out, his flat chest against the cold floor till dawn.
The next morning Broadus was complaining of bad dreams and the same headache he’d had the day before. Bishop, the officer who escorted him to the sickroom, told him, “This ain’t no bad dream. This here’s the chain gang, buddy. You wouldn’t have no headache if you’d quit your damn walking. You done walked halfway ’round the world and never went nowhere.”
The nurse was on the phone when they reached her office. “Blue cheese,” she was saying. “Extra blue cheese.” Broadus ran a hand over his head and looked terrified.
“Damn bug,” Bishop said. “What in hell’s wrong with you?”
“Here,” said the nurse gently, guiding him to the examining table. “Lie down, Broadus.”
He cradled his head and rocked from side to side on the table.
“What hurts you, Broadus?” asked the nurse.
“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with him that a week in the hole on castor oil wouldn’t fix,” said Bishop. The nurse fixed him with an icy stare. Bishop, who was sweet on the nurse, added by way of explanation, “This boy killed his mama.”
“He’s not a boy,” she said. “He’s nearly fifty years old.”
“He ain’t much o’ nothin’.”
The nurse ignored Bishop. “What is it, Broadus?”
“Got me this headache, ma’am,” he managed.
“I’d have me a headache too,” Bishop interjected. “Just yesterday I seen him tapping hisself in the damn head with a rock behind the trailer.”
“Why didn’t you stop him?” she demanded indignantly.
“It’s his head.”
She turned her back on him and began taking Broadus’s vital signs.
“You treat him like a damn king, but you won’t give me the time o’ day.”
“I been havin’ bad dreams in my head, ma’am,” said Broadus meekly.
“It’s all right, Broadus. We’ll get you fixed up.”
“It ain’t his head,” said Bishop, moving toward the door. “It’s his damn conscience.”
Shame begged Broadus to help him, weeping on hands and knees, his cheek next to Broadus’s black state brogans. Broadus wanted to help but was too afraid. Not of the jukers but of Shame. The kid could see through stone.
Broadus slowly drove a cotter pin into his head.
He was awake. The nurse was eating her salad. There was a lot of commotion out in the hall, then two of the jukers barged into the sickroom carrying Shame, limp and lifeless as a rag.
“Found ’im layin’ in the shoe pit outta his head sniffin’ lighter fluid,” said one. “Talkin’ all kinds o’ shit.”
“I believe he’s done OD’d,” said the other.
The nurse never looked up from her salad. The jukers left Shame moaning on one of the bunks.
The nurse continued eating as though Shame wasn’t there. Broadus struggled to raise himself up on an elbow. The headache was blinding him. He sat up. Suddenly Shame sat up too and said, “I’m the hungry one,” then started to cry.
Broadus slid off the table, walked over to the nurse, whose loaded fork was poised in midair, and snatched her salad. He hurried over to Shame’s cot and offered it to him.
“Broadus,” the nurse uttered plaintively, getting up from her desk.
Shame accepted the salad. “ ’Preciate it,” he said.
“Why you all the time cryin’?” Broadus asked.
“You punked,” Shame accused. “You painted your fingernails. Shaved your legs. Put on lipstick.”
“I’m sorrier than hell, Shame.”
“We all sorrier than hell,” he said, through a mouthful of salad. “Why didn’t you help when them jukers cracked on me?”
“I washed your dirty feet with my cryin’. And now here you come wantin’ forgiveness.”
“I know I ain’t fit to live, Shame.”
“That ain’t the point. We all here to suffer.”
“Ain’t I suffered?”
“They say I kilt my mama.” Broadus started to cry.
“I believe I musta, but I ain’t sure.”
“Well, I ain’t accusin’ you o’ nothin’.”
“Did I kill her?”
“Yeah. You kilt her.”
“I expected I musta. Else they wouldn’t have me in here.”
“There’s a lotta ways o’ gettin’ here.”
“Now what, Shame?”
“You sure better recognize me next time you see me in the yard.”
“I will, Shame. I will. I swear on my mama.”
“C’mere,” said Shame. He opened his hand in front of Broadus’s face. A nail lay in his palm. Broadus got on his knees and surrendered his head to Shame.
“I’m less than you,” said Shame, crying again. He put the nail against Broadus’s head, took off one of his shoes, and lifted it.
Lettuce was strewn across the cot. Broadus knelt before it, crying, his hands folded in a big glob of blue cheese. “Shame,” he intoned. “Shame. Shame. Shame.”
“Broadus,” the nurse repeated, “why did you take my salad?” Walking toward him, she saw a line of blood running down his face. “What happened, Broadus?” she asked, helping him back to the examining table. She went to her desk and buzzed the sergeant’s office.
Broadus’s eyes were catatonic. “Shame,” he said. “Shame.”
“It’s all right, Broadus,” said the nurse gently, swabbing at the blood with a cotton ball. “You don’t have to be ashamed.”
The blood trickled steadily from his scalp, and as she dabbed at it the cotton snagged on something. She parted his hair and felt the crown with her fingers. “Oh!” she exclaimed, as though all of the air in her body had been suddenly squeezed out. Bishop walked in and said, “What’s the matter?” as she was bending to see what she knew she’d felt: the head of an eight-penny finishing nail sticking out of Broadus’s skull.
“Jesus Lord, have mercy,” she said, steadying herself against the table with one arm.
“Shame,” Broadus called.
“Yeah. You got a lot to be ’shamed for,” said Bishop, hurrying to the staggering nurse and seizing upon his chance to hold her.
After Broadus was X-rayed at the hospital, he was stripped and placed on lockup in the hole until it could be decided what to do with him. As he was escorted to the hole, he claimed there was a prisoner named Shame crying in one of the phone booths out in the yard. Simple aspirin alleviated the headaches, although Broadus continued to allude to Shame.
The medical reports — replete with the X-rays of Broadus’s cranium, fractured by the jagged accretion of a dozen sharp objects, the largest being the eight-penny finishing nail — were prominently featured in a prestigious medical journal.
Broadus’s proclivity for pounding things into his head was explained by psychiatrists as “Mr. Creek’s reaction to his sense of shame and guilt at having murdered his mother” — to which Reverend Crow, the prison chaplain, cryptically responded, “Yes, Christ prevailed upon mankind to crucify him.” Officer Bishop, constitutionally skeptical not only of shrinks and reverends but especially of their ridiculous tendency to pretend that there were things worth learning about convicts and Jesus, said, “No damn wonder he had hisself a headache.”