Jimmy Baca knows what he’s writing about — he spent five years in Arizona State Prison on a drug charge. A native of New Mexico, he’d never read a book and didn’t know how to write when he went into prison at the age of 21. He taught himself English and Spanish while was there. Last month, the Louisiana State University Press published his 56-page volume of poetry, Immigrants in Our Own Land, written while he was in prison. After his release last year, he came to Hurdle Mills, N.C. because of his friendship with poet Virginia Rudder. An interview with him will appear in an upcoming issue.
A slim, reserved, dirty-blond young man. The hair impeccably neat, deliberately combed, layer on layer like onion skin. “Eighteen years,” he said, when I asked him how long he had been here.
It was three of us that went to the wheel-house together. The other man went in first and this one and I waited in the anteroom of the office.
“What did you think of the strike?” I asked.
“Oh,” he said, “it was bound to fail.”
“The warden.” He turned to notice a guard coming out of an office, then continued, “He’s a cold blooded devil. No sense of responsibility, no accountability to no one. He’s got a lot of power, and any means to quell eruptions in the joint, and he damn sure uses any means. Secondly, the convicts themselves. They don’t know the meaning of a hunger strike. They think it’s a Brando movie.”
“Ya,” I said, “I was thinking the same thing. The sense of respect for themselves is nil, all gone and skin deep, gaudy mentality built around tv cop shows. . . .”
“Yes,” he broke in, “and when a serious encounter fronts them, you see how easy they bend for material satisfactions, craving everything but better conditions. . . .”
“Damn right,” I said.
And he continued, “Their strength is superficial, not genuine or durable. Oh, they get by, but they buttress their hardships by conniving for cigarettes, bumming coffee or trying to do a game a week on some dude’s head.”
“Ya,” said I.
The guard came out and took my friend inside. The other man coming out squatted next to me, and began rolling a cigarette. I knew him and respected him.
He was going on three years now in prison. Green eyes, a slash of white separating his dark auburn hair right down the middle. A birthmark, he once told me. A hell of a birthmark, I told him. And he went by the nickname of Skunk.
A man with a more solid bedrock of a heart could not be found. I have never known a man with more patience or endurance, and mingling with these, a very light humor.
He went on a hunger strike once because the doctor refused to fix his teeth. He waited for two years to get his teeth pulled, and when finally his turn came to go before the dentist, the dear dentist gave him aspirin! And said it would ease the pain of two or three toothaches. . . . So, after constantly badgering the medic, who only responded with cynical remarks toward the Skunk, he decidedly won a partial victory when they relieved him of three teeth, and then three more teeth. Then the dentist decided to leave Skunk’s mouth alone, leaving him with six missing teeth. So Skunk resorted to soup and coffee every meal.
They called him back to the dentist’s office after that. He sat in the chair, they put him to sleep, and when he woke up how happy Skunk was to find they had taken out three more teeth!
His weight rapidly drove down, his lips chapped, his cheeks hollowed, his fingers trembled after months of sipping soup. And since he had gone this far, he made it official to the captain one morning when he could hardly stand that he was going on a hunger strike.
The same day he informed them that he could not get out of bed, and had to be taken to the hospital to be fed intravenously.
Looking down at him now, I asked, “How’s your teeth fit!”
“Don’t fit worth a damn. At least I got them. (He clacked them.) In time my gums will sink and fit them. In the meantime, I learn what pain is, eh?”
I wondered at him until the other prisoner came out of the office and I went in.
Nothing to be said and nothing to be done. I stood in the harshly lit room looking on the sarge filling out my papers that would set a court hearing. This was a preliminary hearing to decide if the case was a sham or not — and yet, we had not exchanged a word. That is a hearing: one listens and hears them and nods in agreement to whatever charge they deem you guilty of. So I had my hearing, he handed me my papers, and gave the date of the court trial. And the three of us went back to the cellblock.
Several days later I was summoned to court. After passing a few iron gates and crossing two compounds, I entered the building. Court was held in the diagnostic center. In the past, this cellblock was used to cage the new cons, classify them to jobs and assign them to their respective cellblocks. Now it was used as a human pound for the “mad-dogs,” as the Administration termed the unruly and belligerent.
I entered the courtroom, a cubby-hole, bright electric lights, a desk to my right, and behind it three judges, three guards and a counselor — the last elevated to that position from a turn-key. You must prove yourself a disciplined apostle of the State before entering into counselorship. A counselor enters your cell once in a great while, glances around real homey like, calls you by your first name, wins your trust, tells a few kinky jokes and inquires of your health. Then when he has the information he secretly desires, he leaves. Many cons open themselves to a counselor because they inwardly hope he will help them gain entrance to a minimum security camp or some other desired goal that eases doing time in a maximum state security prison. And many are disillusioned because they receive no help.
I sat down on the chair before the desk. The Captain reached over and turned on the tape recorder. He began to read the charges:
At the above date and time (1/9/76/ 5:35 a.m.), I woke the cellblock for breakfast. At 5:45 a.m. I went to check the cells. The above named inmate was in his bed asleep. He then got up complaining about going to chow. He went out the door but did not go up the stairs. He has been warned about this before. He is charged with violating the rule 6-c 14 — failure to follow a lawful direction or rule.
“How do you plead?”
“Guilty,” I said, “but with reservations to make a statement.” (I should, I reflected, plead insanity, a just comparison to this court hearing.)
“Proceed,” the handsome Captain bellowed. Just then his thumb flicked the button off on the recorder.
“First,” I began, “I would like to say I have bought me an alarm clock (I hadn’t). So I won’t be getting up late anymore. Secondly, it seems quite absurd for one that does not wish to eat breakfast to attend the morning meal and sit there blankly staring at the walls. But if this must be, then I see nothing wrong in waking up, dressing, stepping outside the cellblock portico and returning to one’s cell. And this was what I did, what has been done, and what is being done to this present moment. So I ask, why select me for such a petty and trivial crime, that was no crime, until this guard whimsically created it?”
“There is a rule that spells out clearly you must go through the chow line,” the counselor barked. And in the eyes of his two associates, I saw a spark of surprise.
I resumed, “If there is a law, I am unaware of it.” I didn’t look at the counselor.
“The hell you are!” and his fist slammed the desk top.
“I am,” I reassured him.
“Don’t give me that shit,” the enraged counselor said as he stood up.
“I am,” and looked up at him and smiled, “not aware of it!”
He wanted me to grovel and go through the please-please master bit. It would have gratified his highest desire. Once, on one of his infrequent visits to the cellblock, I inquired of him why he never did anything for the convicts. “Look,” he smacked his lips, “I only carry the ball here.” “Well, then I’ll call you ball-carrier from now on and not counselor.” “You just shut your mouth,” he snapped. “Ball-carrier.” “Put that sonofabitch in his cell!” “No need,” I had said when I saw the guard coming, “so you’re a man of the pig-skin.” I walked down the tier to my cell. That was two years ago. Since then, he had never spoken to me. Until now.
“You are a liar,” he accused, his hands flat palmed on the desk, his eyes like hot coals in the dark.
“No I am not lying. I came to court under the half-hearted hope of receiving a just hearing . . . and,” he took quick steps around the desk, grasped at my shirt, twisting up a bunch of it.
“You are a liar!”
“Am I?” He started shaking. I went on, “Why are you considered one of the chummy boys among the gangsters?” He threw me back and for a moment I saw the room upside down and then I hit the floor.
“That’s enough!” the Captain behind him ordered. Then tense anticipation, hot breathing, a tremble in the air.
“Sit down!” the Captain ordered. The counselor did and then I did. He flicked the tape recorder on and began, “We hereby find you guilty and sentence you to twenty-days isolation.”
. . . This was a preliminary hearing to decide if the case was a sham or not — and yet, we had not exchanged a word. That is a hearing . . .
I left the room. The courtroom.
Back at the cellblock I packed my clothes and books in two cardboard boxes, slipped the cover over my guitar and fastened my typewriter snugly into its case. They came after me and we left. We dropped off the two boxes at the Property Room. We went on. I took with me a Bible, two pamphlets, a pair of boxershorts and a toothbrush.
We arrived at the dungeon, and stood outside while the guard, jangling his keys, could be heard approaching.
To my left was the boiler-room, the door open, and far below the black greasy steps sat an old convict at his desk — cluttered with odd pieces of steel and wires, light bulbs and tools. His blue jeans were filthy. The grim pipes overhead hissed with vapor. And there was the sound of thick liquids being pumped and emptied. The cement floor was splotched with oils and water pools.
The dungeon looked like a long cavernous casket. Thick squat windows with chicken wire embedded in them gave off an eye-level view of the ground. All the windows were closed. Every twenty feet we had to stop, a door was unlocked, and we passed through.
In a little landing off to the side I undressed. I raised my arms, my heels, I turned around, I lifted my testicles up, and then the guard ran his fingers through my hair. Last of all, he ordered me to bend over and spread my cheeks. Then I pulled my shorts back on.
“Can I take these books with me?”
“Only one,” he replied, breathing heavily. His black mustache seemed like hard bicycle spokes or the black sprocket of an engine.
“But,” I tried to convince him, “those other two pamphlets I need. They have important references to the Bible.”
“Well, let me have the Bible then.”
Another fat guard trundled up. He had a nice chubby face.
“Where does this one go?”
I hesitated, “Well, what about the pamphlets?”
“What about them?”
“There’s no way I could have them?”
“One book only.”
So I went down the hall, bars to my right, and to my left a wall. More bars to my right. Then the cages of men on death-row. Gloomy, rough, stern eyes met mine.
At the end of this section lived a man I was faintly familiar with, a writer and poet. We had talked when I used to live down here. I saw him.
“How you doing?” He was sitting on his bed wearing a white t-shirt and boxershorts. Tall, lame-looking, professor type, bald and smiling, “Ok,” he said. His brown eyes smiled.
I stood there a moment. The guard worked his bronze time-worn key into another door.
“That book you gave me,” I said, “I’m still reading it. She writes beautiful poetry.”
“Yes, yes she does.”
“You look fine.” I remembered when he didn’t look so good.
The change of coming from a middle-class suburban neighborhood to one of the most infamous prisons in the United States was too much. A nice wife and two healthy kids, and now impulsive, oppressive, angry convicts . . . for the rest of your life, if you had one left.
At one point he cut his own throat. Another time the Administration wanted to place him on “Nut Row” and juice him with sedatives. He resisted. They came for him but he stuck his arms and legs through the bars to bar the celldoor from opening. He knew if they took him to Nut Row in a week he would be a dribbling-spittle lead-eyed moron.
The guards were amused at his defiance. They left and very shortly returned with a long black electrical cord. They plugged it in, then took two other cords with pliers on the ends, like battery cables, and clamped them onto the bars. The juice went on, and my friend screamed out a chill hoarse holler. They carried him away to Nut Row.
The guard had the door open. I said goodbye to my friend and gave him the warmest smile I ever intended anyone to feel. I followed the guard out of my friend’s sight, down the long narrow hallway. Then another sheet of black metal, what they call a door. The air had gotten darker. I thought how men lived here year after year. Their flesh took on a jelly looseness like old people at 80. The last threads of their humanity, wasting here in the pits, like cobwebs, ever light on the surface of their pale flesh. Even the Blacks had a certain pale pallor about them. Not of fear, but in everyone’s face there was a blue shade, a hovering of a strange bent shape.
They seldom saw the sky. They shared with other men on the yard, but to a touchier degree, the futility of prison, its depravity and complete deprivation of the sensory stimulants of nature. Some had not touched earth for years, only cement, and this had become their ground, poetically speaking, where roses never grow, much less hope of heart.
Down here was only blankness — as if someone had taken the eyes and turned them around, so only the whites were showing, and that whiteness was what reflected down here to the mind’s screen.
Something like experiencing eternity down here. A fixed unmoving one, a rigid one, that just stared at you like a wolf about to pounce on a doe, just staring down on you with that look of a predator.
The door opened. I entered a cave-like dwelling set off with six cells, in eerie lighting. And those same ghostly faces. A shower dripped. Twenty feet in front of me stood an old wrinkled guard behind bars in a cage.
The cage door opened and I went in. A tiny brown man on the bottom bunk. The door croaked closed and then the man’s eyes opened like two burning houses at night. A small light dangled from the ceiling. Rock walls, rock floor, rock ceiling, steel bed, bars, no windows, a grimy filthy toilet, a shrunken basin with cold water, and except for our toothbrushes and boxershorts, we had nothing else. The cell was rusty green. In scraped sections it revealed black. Scrambled graffiti in scrawly streaks and smears over the wall and ceiling, everywhere. Fresh air and sunlight were as far away as the night Jesus walked on water. They were miracles now to the mind and heart.
I jumped up on the top bunk. It was too hot to breathe up here. What was I thinking of before? The brutal scenery overtook me so the unbearable heat seemed a grace. They cached my clothes and two pamphlets. They were not really references to the Bible but small condensed reading, chosen at random by the editor, of man’s most enlightening thoughts throughout the centuries.
People. “They themselves are makers of themselves.” This was the opening sentence in one of them. And I suppose it would hold true that men themselves are destroyers of themselves. There were plenty of men down here who would willingly kill themselves. They were not allowed to because the State wanted that right reserved for itself alone. All razor sharp instruments were taken away from the men. There was very little they could do. If they attempted to jump from the top bunk head first to the cement floor and did not succeed in killing themselves, they would be beaten by the guards, tossed on Nut-Run and forever after sit in a mindless stupor never knowing who, what, or where they were, under the parental palm of medicine. Only the State reserved the right to kill. In the meantime, all the men down here must wait until it decided to kill. “They themselves are makers of themselves.” Even I, an undereducated member of society, could refute this little piece of wisdom.
The man below got up and took a piss. A hard resounding crash of liquid that to this day irritates the hell out of me. But when he flushed it the entire building, my senses, everything was shaking from the roar of flushing sewage.
“They regulate the toilets,” he said, “so if you need the toilet, you better use it now. They’ll turn the water off soon.”
I didn’t need to but I got down from the bunk and sat on his. “Hello, my name is Jimmy.” And with this we talked all night. He had very jet black hair, Indian blue, and sad startled eyes. Both forearms and his back had tattoos. Clouds and a bird were inked on one arm and on the other a snake with wings. Down the length of his spine and from shoulder to shoulder a lovely picture of our Lady of Guadalupe in blue and red. His skin was even brown, like an altar cloth in a small old church in the distant mountains.
He told me about himself cautiously at first. Then as the night wore on, he became at ease. He had done time in Mexico. Five years, until he escaped from an island called the Isle of Mary.
He was arrested when he went to Nogales, Mexico. There in a hotel he exchanged rifles for six ounces of heroin. And then the person who sold him and his friends heroin notified the Federales. The Federales were waiting outside for them. One of his friends went down to buy some cotton at the store but he didn’t return. The other one left and he also did not return. Finally, after waiting for them, he decided to go see what happened to them. Outside it was dark. He went to his car and looked inside. Nothing but a sweater on the seat. He was going to get in when a slight movement to his left made him look long enough to stop his hand from taking the car handle. Instead he turned abruptly and walked away. As he did, a man called to him. He kept on walking. He did not turn around. The man called again in Spanish and received no answer. A shot followed and then another. Now he decided to turn around. Other Federales approached him. They took him roughly by the arms and led him around the corner and there his two friends were waiting, bloody and beaten badly.
The cage door opened and I went in . . . Fresh air and sunlight were as far away as the night Jesus walked on water.
“Do you know them?” the Federale inquired.
A blow was delivered to his head.
“Do you know them?”
Emphatically he said, “No, no I don’t.”
“You lie.” And they beat him more.
“Yes, yes, I know them,” he pleaded helplessly.
They were taken to jail. His cell was large enough to hold four men. There were twenty-three in there and none wore clothing. They slept with legs and arms tangled over each other. Some slept standing up.
One night he remembered a white man was brought into the cell, his hair matted with blood and a red stream oozed from his cracked forehead. A Mexican was right behind him and just as bloody. The men complained there was no room but their pleas went heedlessly into the fetid air.
Everyone scooted themselves to the walls, making a ring in the center where both men were lying in their own pools of blood. One got up and kicked the other and they burrowed into each other like mad dogs. Blood splattered everywhere, some on another prisoner’s face who didn’t like it so he jumped in blindly pounding. The other stood dazed with bloody fists hanging and then closed in on the man also.
But suddenly someone else darted out and flattened him. In the end, the two men died that night and a third was dying. This last was bent over in pain on his side. No one talked. They stared at the two dead men and listened to the third wasting away with bubbles of blood frothing from his mouth. On the third day he died and the guards came and took them away. The blood remained on the floor and on the prisoners’ bodies. Some daubed at it with their thumbs, using their own saliva as water. And the others had so much on them they simply left it alone. It would rub off on someone else while they slept. Around the testicles of some men were rashes. No one knew what it was, but they attributed it to malnutrition and poisonous quarters and the close proximity to each other.
In one of the walls, next to the hole in the floor where men defecated, another huge hole has been knocked out. It opened to another cell. Inside, a leviathan maniac roamed. One of his eyes was completely covered with a weird green mossy outgrowth. No eye there except a sponge of sores. His legs, arms and back were rotting away. Everyone said the man was crazy and they feared him because sometimes he would reach his giant hand through the hole and grasp at someone.
This half-beast of a man took a small bent-up coffee can between his legs and urinated. And then dumped a load. Cradling the can in both hands under his chin he swirled the ingredients to a slush, then skillfully inserted his hand and can through the hole and flung the liquid over the sleeping tangled bodies. The only water was delivered in plastic jugs by the guards when they felt you should have some. So the men could do nothing but remain drenched in the filth till morning.
The following night someone had gotten hold of a broom to sweep the cell and walls and bodies free of the grime and feces. One lad sharpened the handle of the broom to a point. He held it high out of view over the hole. Someone called the crazy giant over and when he bent his massive head to the hole and peered in with his good eye the wooden sword plunged in and quickly out as blood spouted and the great man screamed in agony.
For hours he beat his head against the walls and finally keeled over dead like a buffalo. It was now quiet and everyone had time to notice the eyeball, stuck to the broomtip like a burnt marshmallow. They began to laugh. Then someone tossed it into his cell next to the coffee can.
Then they took my friend to the main prison on the island. He was to do five years.
He was ferried from Mazatlan to the island. The army served as guards in the prison and the men worked in the fields. For many of them the ocean became the place to pass the time of day. Early in the morning they would strip their spare clothing off and swim. Others would collect coconuts in the jungle. Time passed and my friend recovered his health rapidly.
One day he and his fellow prisoners were riding along a mountain road. The driver was drunk and crashed into the side of the mountain. The truck and the men were shaken but nothing more serious. The driver continued on in the rackety heap, swerving from side to side, until he swerved too close to the edge of the cliff and the truck went flying through midair. The men in the back had jumped out before the truck left the road and only the driver and his passenger, my friend, were left to say their last prayers. My friend opened the door and leaped out a minute before the truck hit canyon floor. It exploded with the driver in it.
Several minutes later as the truck was being melted in its own flames, he awoke dazed, no more than twenty yards away. And looking up, directly at the truck, the cliff above, he saw nothing for long minutes. He thought he was in heaven because the heavy pungent smell of the ocean soaked his mind. He squinted up at the cliffs again but saw nothing.
Then suddenly a faint human cry pierced his conscience. It came again and again. Vaguely he began to receive the words, “are you alright?” He looked up and saw fuzzy blue and a little dark thing waving above. He tried to pick himself up and a burst of pain swept his leg. He screamed and looked down at his knee and hip bone totally exposed. Then it was bye bye black bird and he passed out under the big black wings, thinking of that wavering dark spot way up there and wondering if it was God or the Devil.
He woke up to find himself on earth still, and even worse, in a prison hospital. A horde of men were around him when he opened his eyes. The General, in full regalia, the doctor, and a few queer prisoners acting as nurses.
He heard the doctor say to the General, “He will have to be removed to the hospital in the city.” My friend had gauze plastered over him and through his numb mind heard, “we haven’t got the equipment here for this serious . . .” and whoever was speaking moved away.
He opened his eyes wider and looked at everyone and wanted to say something. The General briskly turned and left. And when he reached the door, he turned and said, “Have the report ready by the evening dinner bell, and he’ll leave first thing in the morning when the boat comes in with the supplies.”
So the following morning he left.
He was trying to achieve perfection and kept pounding the sentence against my ears, “Nothing exists, nothing exists, nothing exists . . .”
He was returned to the prison three months later with his leg repaired, a long inch-thick bolt of steel inserted from hip to knee. It was uncomfortable but it would be taken out soon enough. To exercise his leg, he worked in the library now delivering books to everyone. Next he began taking long walks from the camp over rocky roads. And then his leg at last was strong enough to challenge the steep descending cliffs that led to the ocean. He began to bring a bamboo pole with him and fished a lot. He thought a great deal during these hours and realized a year had passed since the accident.
It was a wind howling evening when he knocked on the office door of the General. No one was in so he went over to the hospital and located the doctor. This was the same saint who had previously been responsible for sending him off the island to the mainland hospital.
They exchanged small talk about his leg. The conversation ultimately led to the reason why he had come, “It is ready to come out,” he told the doctor.
And with that he left the hospital. The boat would be coming in tomorrow. There would be enough time for the doctor to fill out the papers and deliver them to the General who would sign them. He’d be on the boat and enjoy a small respite from the isolated island.
But the General refused to sign the papers. And it was not until six months later that he got to question the General’s decision. Some high dignitaries from Mexico were there and they were interviewing the prisoners and asking them about their grievances.
He appeared and explained his problem and immediately one of the men took up a piece of paper and scribbled something on it. The following morning he was on the boat and on his way to having his pin taken out of his leg.
Ah, the ocean was such a beautiful beast! And the sunny water gurgled up and lapped in the wind. He could smell the salt but even more so he felt the freshness sink in his bones. He leaned over the rail and saw the blue below. He could not explain the savage sensuous feeling the ocean evoked in him. He knew he would never understand it. And he also knew, someday, he must come back and ride these waves as a free man.
When he arrived, he was taken directly to the hospital in a police car. He shared the room with two old people and a young man about his age.
They scheduled surgery for the next day.
That night he was playing cards with the old man. The window was open and the smell of grass and leaves wafted in. Sometimes the cards lifted or the old man’s body odor would fill his nostrils and my friend would remember when he was a little boy playing in the dirt road.
“So you are from the island.”
“I am myself a soldier of Zapata. That time is over in this world but not in my heart.”
They played in silence for a long while. The old man stretched his legs out. He wore cotton trousers and a dirty shirt. His wife was sleeping on his bed with her clothes on. His gray hair, his strong square jaw, his big mellow brown eyes and leathery lips gave him the appearance of a mighty soldier. His thick fingers picked the cards up with a smoothness of motion.
The present government and I do not get along,” he said, and sighed as they finished the last game. It was well into the night and they had hardly spoken to each other. “If it slips, however, many people like me, the old ones, will be happy.”
At this remark my young friend picked up the talk.
“Well then, you are not truly happy with them. I see all around how they have grafted the land, a little for you, a lot for them.”
“Yes,” he said with an unchanging expression, “the woman and I once had a few good hills south of here but no more, they took them, thieves.”
“Will you help me escape?”
“I was waiting for you to ask me,” and the old man smiled with a vibrant tenderness.
“All you will have to do is tell them tomorrow when they come for me that I left through the window. I will be in the linen closet. When they are gone, knock on the door three times. I’ll come out and leave then through the front door with your clothes on.”
“As you say,” and the old man burst out laughing.
The two then sat up talking and sharing the burritos the old man had brought with him in a paper bag. At the first sign of daylight my friend took his two sheets and tied them together. He roped them around a steam radiator next to the window. And then he slid into the linen closet, crouching under a bundle of dirty sheets.
So they came for him in the morning. The old man explained to the guard how my friend had left. He told the guard he had seen him scamper over the grass and head west.
“Why didn’t you call us?” the guard asked.
“I was afraid. I’m sorry, I didn’t think.”
They examined the room. Yes, he was gone. Then one of the older guards noticed the sheet had no sign of strain on it. He checked the looped sheet closely. No, no strain at all. The old man and woman watched. The guard cursed at them and left in a huff.
After an hour had passed, the old man promptly knocked on the door as he had been instructed. My friend uncovered himself and made the sign of the cross. He also had heard the shuffling of the guard’s boots and heard them when they discovered he hadn’t gone out the window. He crept out now and saw the old man smiling. They embraced and then my friend left.
He wiggled his toes constantly. When I asked him why, he said a nervous disorder in his skinny white legs caused it. And consciously he never even felt them move. He was always lying down, his feet dangling over the bed and his toes curling inward a few feet from my face as I sat on the toilet. I asked him if he knew why women, when they crossed their legs one over the other in a sitting position, would wag their leg. He didn’t. So I told him some writer said it was because their wagging legs would stimulate their vulva by rubbing it warmly and softly against itself. He stared at me with his stern eyes, wondering if I was implying something about his wiggling toes.
He was five feet seven inches tall and always stuffed his pale hands into his jeans when standing. Blue glassy eyes held you as he spit out words quicker than a lizard’s tongue is able to pick insects off a leaf.
He became my cell partner about three months ago. I am one of those persons who can never judge a person at first glance and when he moved to the cell block, I listened to him and thought, well, he seems to be better than a lot of people here. He spoke fluently, like a politician’s apprentice. His words always exuded a vivacity and this I think is what attracted me to him one day while I was shooting a few baskets. There he sat in the sun, legs crossed like a wise man on the dying grass. He was talking to some other fellow when I retrieved the basketball and on my way back stopped next to him.
“Hey, what’s up?” I said.
After this first question I sat there and listened to him for nearly three hours. I hardly said a word. He went on to tell me about his legal case. And that he had a lot of money. I thought, all of us in prison have millions of greenbacks stashed away somewhere, and nodded with a smile when he said the amount, a million.
“Didn’t you at one time go in for that holy eastern religion?” I asked.
“I’m still into it,” he said. His blue eyes glittered and small motes of dandruff fell from his balding head of brown hair. It was cut short and crude.
We jabbered on a wee bit more and then it was time to go in. He lived a few cells down from me. When he came out for a shower he informed the guard that he didn’t have any clothes to change into. Clean clothes that is, since he had just come to the cell block and his clothes were left behind in all the rush, locked in the main yard office where everyone knew their boxes were being subjected to a thorough interview by the lecherous fingers of the administration. He felt a little anxiety about this and wished to have his property returned to him as soon as possible.
And the guard just said, “Ask some other guard. The first day here and right away you start bothering.”
Well, the Joker was in the shower, and when he stepped out moments later, he was so red one might have thought he was in a fire. The way the guard had dismissed him was burning in him now. The guard stared at him while Joker was putting on his old shorts.
“And besides, they’re not open,” the guard said and immediately looked down. The Joker blew up.
“What the hell do you think you’re supposed to be doing? I know goddam well they’re open. You’re just too chickenshit to do a damn thing for the inmates.” Joker grasped on to the mesh wire enclosing and safely separating him from the guard. He again pled with the guard but the guard only answered, “Go back to you cell.” And then again Joker went into a tirade. The guard said, “I order you to go back to your cell.” And Joker went.
At exercise the next day I saw Joker again. The sun was fulgent and smoldering gold in the sky. Joker sat there with his back to the sun. His shirt was off revealing a concave chest with a few sparse, wiry, thick gray hairs. His entire face squinted at me as I approached him.
“Hey, what’s up?” I asked.
And then he started on a long monologue about his fun times on the streets. In freedom, he had women and dope. Now he had his Hindu religion to get him high.
“How long you got to do before you kill your number?” I asked him.
“Well, I should be out before Christmas,” he said. I was surprised. He said he had 50 to kill, but if everything went well, he’d be out before Christmas, a free man.
“How?” I asked.
“My lawyers are working on it.” This made me double back and think maybe he wasn’t bulling me about all his riches.
“The warden,” he began, “is going through all my papers. The dumb ass thinks I’m involved in some million dollar conspiracy to get free. I used to be head of my own corporation. Well — on the board at least. We used to get visits every week, sometimes twice. Me and this other friend of mine.” And as he went on talking the words spewed out and his goggle eyes filled with animation. His hands flew every which way as if catching a lost word and filling it up more and more until I had to say, again and again, “I understand, I understand,” and then he would move on to the next sentence.
He was telling me about his inner experience. He was able to communicate with a whole lot of invisible people. He was trying to achieve perfection and kept pounding the sentence against my ears, “Nothing exists, nothing exists, nothing exists. . . .”
But I told him I disagreed. Because, by my experience, everything existed, and that was that. I never met anybody with so much faith in nothing existing. The nothing faith, the faith of nothing. And then he had all that money and was head of a corporation. Did the money and corporation exist? I asked myself. Well, I doubted him a little.
While we were talking they called him to the office and told him he was there for disciplinary reasons. Apparently yesterday, when he exchanged amenities with the old wolf guard, the guard had subsequently written him up for something. They were both cussing at each other and the guard started the whole skirmish with his arrogant rudeness, but nonetheless, the story was told in another way.
They told Joker he had started it and disobeyed a direct order. After coming back from court, by the expression on his face, I knew that if nothing else existed, the hole did. And I sought to cheer him up.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“I got screwed . . . 20 days in the hole.” I told him I didn’t mean to butt into his business but with guards like the old wolf it was better to just save your needs and complaints until shift change when other guards would be working. His neck twitched when I told him this.
“Don’t worry about your clothes, you can have some of mine. I can lend you a pair of pants and some underwear, ok?”
At supper that night we sat at the same table. It was raining outside and I was smiling and he wasn’t.
“Look,” I told him, “since the cell block is so filled up, when you come back from the hole, if they don’t let you back in, well, just tell them you can stay with me. They don’t want to put anyone in my cell unless the guy is of the same race. But it’s ok with me if you want to live with me.”
Joker agreed. I really didn’t expect him to live with me since the prison was well segregated and those few who had decided not to let this bother them and lived with a man of another race were the victims of incessant jeering and mockeries. Those who did cell together did so for business reasons or purposes of gambling or prostitution. There was always a game behind two guys of different races celling together.
For instance, if one person was tough and ugly he might cell with someone of a different color who was handling the dope in prison. And there was also the sexual side of it when one person cells with another one and one catches and the other pitches, as they say. But on the whole it was not allowed except for these untasty incidents.
It was probably a month later when I was on my bunk reading and the door opened and Joker stood there with his hands in his pockets, his lips squirming with a smile. Hello, I said, not at all enthused by the prospects of what I beheld.
“You said I could live with you so here I am.” So I did, I thought, and was not truly put out by it. He seemed to be a congenial fellow of sorts and so interesting. As I said, he was always very lively. I helped him move his things in.
As we were setting up his tv on the only shelf in the cell I told him how it had been two years since I last watched tv. It was in the afternoon when he turned it on. The screen turned purple and then white and a picture materialized.
There were little women dressed up in gay costumes jumping up and down. They were hugging this host with a microphone in his hand. Game shows. It felt odd, to say the least, watching happy people. I had been pulled from my world where everything came to me from the word. This method could take me back to biblical times and earlier. Now I was in the modern twentieth century with these ladies on a game show screaming hysterically. And I supposed it was fun, unique. I didn’t think it was normal for people to form their thoughts and values more by the tv than by any other media, yet they do. It was a terrific medium, tv, where all the lonely people could get lost and retain no sensible balance in themselves.
Joker also had a fan which we mounted on one of the screws holding the plate over the light switch. I slept on the bottom bunk and he slept on the top.
Several days before the Joker arrived they came and took my bed and installed a new, huge awkward one. It gave us very little room. Between it and the toilet there was only a foot of space. Two feet of space between us and the locker and the shelf where the tv sat. There was more room on the bed than anywhere else in the cell. So I converted my bed into an office.
The books I needed I kept along the wall the bed was against. I set my box of pencils and letters there and lined the bed from end to end with a library. One end was kept open for the pillow. And this was my desk as I leaned against my pillow with a notebook in hand and picked at the world with my pencil.
Meanwhile, as time went on, I felt myself constrained by this alien presence in the room. He did nothing, simply laid on the bed, and this was when I noticed his toes curling, uncurling, curling. And I said nothing. I thought he found a special joy in this pastime. But then I realized it also happened when Joker slept.
We held conversations. So disorderly were they and grew much much worse that we would end up screaming at each other. I knew something was wrong with me for I had never done this. I could always accept the other person’s argument. But now I was finding he could never accept the possibility of being wrong on any issue. And this infuriated me to the limit.
He held, for instance, that most cons were good and could be trusted. But the ones that could not, he felt, should be given the gas chamber. Now here was a con telling about how his brothers and sisters should be executed.
I found out a grave injustice had been dealt him by one of these incorrigible convicts. Well, I said, it still was no justification to kill them. They have been conditioned by a system to maim and mangle each other. And then he asks me what I would do if given total power over these men. Of what men? I asked. Of the men that have killed other people in society and cannot be dealt with.
I would do with them the same thing I would do to you. Put you all in a nice environment: shops where you all could work jointly as leather makers, shoe makers, iron men, carpenters and so on. Each man with a family would have a small cottage to himself with his family. The women if they wished would run for council and tend to the civic affairs while the men would attend class at night to educate themselves. But it would not be the same education one might receive in the city or, as they call them, contemporary schools. Instead, the men would tell their sons about the crimes they had committed and the life they had led up to that time. It would be the grown-ups and small children class. There would be other classes as well. Spanish, English, History, Math, Logic, Nature, etc. And qualified inmates would teach.
During this little critique he repeated no, no, no. Finally, after I was ending he blurted out, “And if they decide to kill someone?” And I answered that they would receive medical treatment. They would be confined within the limits of certified medical/humane conditions.
To say the least he didn’t like this one bit. On another night we had such a vehement argument that he went to bed without talking to me. I said that he was no different than the very warden whom he furiously hated. They both wished the same thing.
He was fond of hearing himself talk and he could talk one’s ears off. At first I thought it might be rude to tell him I had enough of listening. I thought this might upset him since it was his only prize of eminence. But it did get to such a severe point that I had to. One day I simply asked him to lower the tone of his voice and to take it for granted that when he said something to me he needn’t repeat it a hundred ways a hundred different times. Just once was enough. Then the tv became a pronounced problem.
He watched and watched and watched and watched. One night I told him that if he wished to watch tv it would be ok if he used the little earphone. I delivered most of my wishes by telling him it was my fault, not his. I said that if I could not stop watching tv I would destroy my mind and him having it on always didn’t help my poor stamina. He agreed.
When he woke up in the morning he would turn it on. Then suddenly a bounding, sharp cry would totter my senses: his laugh. My God, what a leviathan laugh! It was a cold, unemotional laugh. I could not tell him to quit laughing so I just sat there in stunned perplexity.
On awaking he would snort, grunt, fart, gurgle, scratch, cough, sneeze, brush his teeth with a loud waaa waaaa waaa and then spit the water out. He sat on the toilet and conducted an orchestra of whining and groaning cacophonies. After this he would step over to his little pile of books and shuffle his crisp papers loudly. A book would be slammed shut. A locker would crack shut. And then the tv came on. And he was wearing his earphone but the laugh kept on booming and booming. I wondered what was going to happen to me. Could any one Herculean patience sustain such an onslaught of human noises? Indeed, I never thought a person could summon so many horrible noises; not ebbing death on the battlefield snaking through a hundred men could create such a driven and piercing shelling.
He would stand up after each commercial, smiling, and look me in the eyes. When the show went off the air he would gently place his army blanket on the concrete floor and go into a trance, moaning. An hour or so later when he opened his eyes they were as red as cherries. I asked him where he went on such spiritual excursions. He merely smiled, stood up, stuffed his hands in his pockets and said somewhere. Somewhere? Somewhere.
During this first month he had only received one letter from his attorney. It said something to the effect that everything was going just fine. But soon he would be visiting him to see about a photograph. Nonetheless Joker worried and plagued me with questions. Questions already answered and answered again.
Do you think he is coming? And I, yes. What does he mean by this? Oh well, just what it says, that he needs a photograph. The letters came and came but no lawyer. So one night I sat him down on his bunk, turned off the tv, and told him to listen. I told him someday he was going to have to stand up on his own two feet. You will never be free of people treating you like a dummy unless you put yourself in the vanguard, out front with things you believe in. Nothing will ever come of these attorneys if you let them think you are complacent enough to wait out the remainder of your time while they play around with your money. Nothing will ever get done. So my advice to you is to get a lawyer who will do what he says and not lie to you. As you say, these may very well be the very best lawyers around but how good are they now when you are not even out of prison when they promised you’d be? They are taking you for your money, Joker.
But you don’t understand. What don’t I understand? And he began to tell me: first the money is not mine and second I don’t even know if they have been paid. All I can go on is that I saw a check for five thousand dollars. And I was told by the lawyer that it was for my case. Over the past five years I’ve gone through some lawyers. At least ten of them. But now, as things worked themselves out, I find they were given five thousand dollars by a friend of mine to handle my case. Now that is what you don’t understand.
It was a terrific medium, tv, where all the lonely people could get lost and retain no sensible balance in themselves.
Well, I thought this over. Several days later he asked me what I thought and why have I been so quiet. I told him it didn’t matter, nothing mattered except one certain awareness: that was that he had to take affairs into his own hands and quit relying on hopes and other people’s promises. For if he left his lawyers he would still be in the same position he was in right now. But the lawyers would be forced to show their hand and let him know exactly what was going on.
But this little game they were playing and he going along with it must stop. You think about it. After all, it is you with 50 years to do and not me. But you see, Joker, I don’t like to see them do this to you. I mean staying awake all night and day, getting sick because they fail to keep their end of the bargain. Take things into your own hands and be certain where you stand with them. And then take it from there.
If you wish I’ll draft you a letter but you will have to write the original. But the main thing is to be responsible. You are a very important fellow. And let no one treat you any differently.
So Joker wrote them a letter but at the end, in my opinion, failed to charge them with negligence as I would have done. All very appropriately of course, but to the point, I would tell them what I thought of them. After all, lawyers are not known to be sentimental beasts, more like deceitful beasts from my experience with them.
Why, with my lawyer, what were the first words that came out of his mouth? He said, after walking into the lawyer-room at the county jail, plead guilty son or they’ll hang you. He placed his briefcase on the little interrogation table there and procured some papers for me to sign. I told him to leave and not return. But you must be mad! Yes, so I am, I said. But leave before I put your nose through a quick natural surgery. And he left, in a huff, mumbling something to the order of imbecile, moron, they will hang you.
A notable apprehension gripped my friend the Joker as the days passed. His features indicated a tremendous tenseness. And though we were really not close to each other, in reality I still felt a close kinship to him for his suffering.
He knew not which turn the events might take if there were any events in the future to turn, that is. Joker was extraordinarily obnoxious. He wanted to wrestle with me immediately after each meal. I would come into the cell and he would position himself in a karate stance and jab at me with his knuckles. I slapped him around but he would punish me with those flicking knuckles to the sensitive and flabby muscles around my legs and forearms. My entire body was polka-dotted with little blue splotches. I hadn’t hit him hard and I warned him to quit hitting me hard or he was going to find himself on the floor.
But he paid no attention to me and one day just as I walked into the cell he let loose a swing that caught me right in the jaw. I stood there trying desperately to control myself. In my mind the echoing instinct drilled through the walls of my patience. I could feel the blood gushing to my head and my face reddened with each long second that passed between us.
His eyes jerked around over my face in a puzzling manner. And at last I raised my hand and rubbed my chin and asked him to please not hit me like that again or someone would get hurt, I would break him. And we smiled with each other because we always used the term break in a jocular manner when watching football games. We would say, break that man, break him. Joker turned around and lay on his bunk. I went on top and lay down and we fell asleep.
Outside it was raining again. The mail came and in it was a letter from his attorney. It said he would be down in two weeks. Wee, wee, wee, the Joker cried and woke me up. I read the letter and sure enough, a lawyer was coming down, it said. Well, everything is alright then, don’t worry about anything.
The days passed and finally the night before the lawyer was supposed to come down the Joker prepared himself. His pants he placed in a blue trashcan bucket and washed them, pressed them while they were still wet and placed them between his mattress and the steel plate of the bunk, then laid his mattress back down. They would be pressed in the morning. His shirt he hung up on the locker outside and smoothed it with his hand. He polished his brogans.
That morning Joker skipped athletic field practice and waited in the cell. By afternoon he was still waiting. At supper time Joker finally decided to come up and eat something. The lawyer never showed up and I was trying to make Joker smile. I told him a few jokes. But the Joker didn’t catch them. His mind was elsewhere.