Finely Broken (Full essay- written while I was still incarcerated)

*Warning* I decided to just post the entire thing. It’s a lot longer but has a better flow. Hope you enjoy!IMG_1478

Okay, boys and girls. I’m armed with a brand new Bic Round Stic, medium point ink pen, a Tops 3M legal pad (which advertises itself as “the legal pad PLUS”. I have yet to figure out what the PLUS is), and an Oxford “Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.

 

I swear by Oxford. I was turned on to Oxford dictionaries years ago by an astute English professor, who passionately claimed that all other brands of dictionaries were only suitable for kindling. Don’t run out and burn your Webster’s yet. There have been times in my life, when in a crunch, I have been forced to stoop so low as to consult other inferior brands, and I have to admit that I have seen very little difference among them. Gasp! No, it’s true. However, I still prefer my Oxfords, if only out of habit, and they really have been good to me, so, I’m a loyalist.

 

Today, kids, we’re going to explore a long, difficult and interesting subject: recidivism. Say it with me now. Re-cid-i-vism. It is kind of a pretty word, but it’s an ugly subject. Hold on. Here’s the Oxford “Advanced Learner” definition:

 

Re-cid-iv-ist/ri’sidivist/noun (formal) a person who continues to commit

crimes, and seems unable to stop, even after being punished –

re-cid-iv-ism/izem/noun

 

That’s right. Habitual felons, career criminals, wheels (that’s what they’re called in here) “and the wheels on the bus goes round and round and round.” When will it stop? Nobody knows.

 

It’s a real phenomenon in here. I’ve met so many guys who are on their second, third, and fourth tours of our state’s lovely facilities that I thought it would be interesting if we sat down and discussed it together, once and for all, just you and I. Don’t worry. I’ll do all the talking. You just try and keep up, okay?

 

Let’s start with my buddy, “Cornbread”. We’ve known each other for close to two years now. We actually hung out some, for about the first month or so, of these two years. I quickly had to distance myself from him.

 

Cornbread is on his third tour of our esteemed institution. There is not a doubt in my mind that it won’t be his last time up this particular river.

 

The thing is that Cornbread is absolutely innocent! Just ask him. I mean, sure, he was busted with a bunch of meth (this time), and he’s certainly traveled down “the junkie’s highway.” But as he states (oh, so often!), his was a “victimless, non-violent crime.” I mean, he HAS alienated his entire family, and anyone else who spends any time at all with him, but that is NOT, I repeat, NOT, his fault. He got “hit with a bitch” (a habitual felon charge), and they cruelly loaded him up with time.”Those bastards!” He only has about three years left, and normally he would be eligible for minimum custody, but people keep starting fights with Cornbread. I mean, what’s he supposed to do? Should he just stand there and take it. He doesn’t start the fights. He never does. He’s the victim here.

 

As I’m writing this, our hero is locked away in the hole. He had a confrontation, this time, with the guy who runs the clothes house. Cornbread punched the guy a couple of times, in the mouth. Well, the clothes house guy had it coming. He refused to give Cornbread an extra pair of pants and an extra t-shirt. I mean, any of us would have done the same thing were we in poor Cornbread’s shoes. It’s just the right thing to do. Right?

 

This is actually the third time this month Cornbread has been placed in segregation (poor guy). They really have it in for him.

 

Well, you guys won’t have to worry about the big lug for too long. In a few short years, he’ll max out and be safely out of here and back on the streets with you, where he belongs.

 

My friend, “Big Wheels” – man, they did him wrong! They gave him almost fifteen years. Charged him as a habitual felon. He had taken up stealing. Mostly, it was big items. He stole music equipment from churches, a lawn mower here and there. It escalated because it was so simple. Well, it finally ended after he stole a jet ski from the local mayor’s house. Now, I suppose that does deserve some time, but fifteen years?!? Isn’t that carrying it a bit far, and especially charging him as a career criminal? Sure, he did some time before this, but that was ten years prior. He hadn’t bothered anyone in those ten years. He just laid back, grew his own pot, did a little coke here and there, a little meth (not much at all, really). He drank some, sure, but he doesn’t have a problem or anything. He was just minding his own business. Oh, yeah, the other reason he shouldn’t have been charged, as a habitual felon is his two felonies weren’t even similar. I mean, how can you consider someone a career criminal when the crimes weren’t even similar? That’s just crazy.

 

Well, good ole Big Wheels has got Jesus now. He had Jesus before, the first time he was in prison, bit it wasn’t like this time. This time, it’s real. He has been trying to put that fire under his two sons, but, well, he has done this a few too many times, and they’re just not buying it anymore, but it really is really real this time – really.

 

His oldest son has started smoking pot recently (shrug). What can you say? There ain’t nothin’ wrong with a little weed, and at least he’s honest about it, right?

 

Well, that’s neither here nor there. It’s not any of his business, really. He has other things to worry about.

 

Like the chipped bone in his leg. Now Big Wheels is a big boy, about three hundred pounds of big boy, but he just has a healthy appetite, and he HAS always been big-boned. It’s not his fault. Nothing he could do about that.

 

Now, carrying around all that weight wears him out fast, but he does like to eat and he hates, just hates, to see food going to waste, even if it’s the terrible stuff “they’re trying to kill us” with in here. (He tells me that, back in the day, the food was much better.) We all hate to see him go hungry. It would break your heart to see how hungry he gets. So everyone chips in here and there to make sure B.W. gets fed. Just anything that’s not going to get eaten, thank you very much. Praise Jesus!

 

Here’s the thing: The medical staff here, they refuse to operate on that chipped bone in his leg. Okay, they said they’d do it – IF he went on their “special diet” and lost some weight. He tried that “special diet” and lost some weight. Do you know they feed you the same stuff over and over every day? Who could stand that? Not you or I. We wouldn’t stand for it! Well, neither will he.

 

In fact, he doesn’t. There’s this old guy who lives in the same block as Big Wheels, and the medical staff have assigned him a wheel chair, but the old guy never uses the thing. He can’t even stand using it. So, Big Wheels really does need himself a wheel chair ‘cause it hurts so darn much to walk anymore. The medical team doesn’t even have the heart to give him a wheel chair. I know, I know. I couldn’t believe this either, but it’s true. All they’ll give him is a can, or a crutch – and they call themselves doctors!

 

Fortunately, the kind old man could see our friend’s anguish and he has very considerately given Big Wheels the wheel chair to use. Thank Jesus for that!

 

Huh! Would ya look at that! Here we were talking about recidivism and somehow or another we ended up talking about B.W’s diet and how he got in the wheel chair and all that. Now how did that happen? I mean, that’s got nothing to do with crime, now does it? Certainly not. No way.

 

You know, one day I did ask B.W. about his last crime. I mean, honestly, he’s a pretty smart guy, so I couldn’t figure out how he did something as dumb as robbing the mayor’s house. So, I asked him.

 

I said, “What exactly were you thinking? I mean, why HIS house?”

 

He said, “Hmmm…I don’t know.”

 

And I’ll tell you what, folks; a truer statement has never left that mouth. He really doesn’t know.

 

I said, “You, uh…. you might want to think about that? Just if you get some spare time. You really might devote a little effort to thinking about that.”

 

Well, B.W. is one career criminal you won’t have to worry about for too much longer. His health is failing quickly. He hasn’t had a good day in years. Besides that chipped bone in his leg, his ‘ol ticker has been acting up. His arthritis is getting progressively worse. His lungs are beat all to hell. In fact, he can barely navigate that wheelchair all by himself these days. He has to have a pusher. Just anyone will do as long as he doesn’t have to do it himself. He doesn’t have to go far – just to the chow hall, and maybe a push back to his room.

 

No sir, no ma’am, you don’t have to worry about Big Wheels committing any more crimes. He’s done. He’s got Jesus now.

 

Let me tell ya ‘bout “Revolution”. He’s not a repeat; in fact, this is his first time down. They loaded that sucker up with six years just ‘cause he’s black! That’s how racist those crackers are who run the show. I mean, yeah, he shot a guy but it’s not like he killed him or anything. He just shot him in the leg. He’s shot a couple of people, in fact, but they couldn’t charge him with those ‘cause he never got caught, so they just gave him the six, but really, that wasn’t even for shooting that guy. You know how THEY are – rich ‘ol white guys, scared of a brother trying to make a decent living for hisself.

 

Here’s the proof. When he was arrested, they had a bunch of pictures of him all over town, on different street corners, slingin’ his dope. They had actually been watching him! You won’t believe what they did next. They tried to get him to roll on his friends! Well, not Revolution. He don’t play that. Naw, he ain’t no snitch. He’s a martyr. He took the hit for everyone, and they gave him six years. White trash, bunch of rednecks in bed sheets. That’s all they are.

 

Well, Revolution is gonna fix all that. He signed up for the educational program. He was gonna get hisself one of those degrees ‘til he figured out that’s what they want you to do. Do you know that if you enroll in school, they expect you to show up every day? Ridiculous! I mean, there’s other stuff going on around here, like basketball, and…well, there’s basketball. A lot of times they have games at the same time they’re having class. What’s a brother to do?

 

Revolution stuck it out for a little while – as long as could be expected of him. He didn’t get no degree or nothin’ like that, but he got a certificate and he made hisself a plan.

 

That’s right. ‘Ol Revolution got it all worked out. The problem was he tried to get too big, too quick. He was sellin’ dope to just anybody ‘cause he had to get those Benjamin Franklins. What ya really gotta have is a front, something legit, so that you can ring the cash registers while you make all your big money out the back door. That’s what those rich ‘ol honkeys do. Everybody knows that.

 

So now that he has a vocational certificate in the culinary arts, he’s just gonna lay back for a while and plan his future. These other cats – that’s why they keep coming back. They’re stupid. They don’t plan.

 

See, Revolution is smart. He ain’t coming back. He’s gonna open up a little restaurant, just a little joint, so he can be legit. Then, while that place runs itself, he can be makin’ the real money hustlin’ dope. He ain’t gonna do it like last time – no, sir! This time, he’s only gonna sell in large quantities, to a very select few. I mean, when he first gets out, he’s gonna have to start small just to raise the money to open his restaurant, but that’ll take no time at all, really. Sure, he could try and get a loan from a bank, but crackers and Uncle Toms run all the banks. He knows better. He knows those guys don’t want nothin’ to do with a Bro-ther!

 

You folks be sure to check out Revolution’s diner. It should be opening up in a few short years.

 

Let me tell you about my new buddy, “Jr.” Even though technically, he isn’t a habitual felon, he used to be.

 

This is his third time living “the easy life.” He just came back a couple of months ago. Now, like I said, he used to be a habitual felon, but he was broke of all that mess the last time he was down. This time, it was different. This time, it really wasn’t his fault. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, but you couldn’t be more wrong. I mean, mostly, Junior’s back in here because of politics and all that nonsense. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here, let me tell you what happened.

 

See, Junior and his girlfriend, they was ridin’ down the road together. They hadn’t been drinkin’ or nothin’ like that, but they got into an argument. Well, it was a big ol’ argument and she just wouldn’t let up. Turns out she was what you might call “bi-polar” but poor ol’ Junior didn’t know all that. All he wanted her to do was just shut up. But she was crazy mad and he was trying to concentrate on driving. Well, she just WOULD NOT shut up, so he did what any of us would have done, really; he busted her in the side of the head, just to get her to calm down, so he could drive (that’s how the blood got in the car.)

 

Well, like I said, Junior didn’t know she was crazy or anything. You’ll never believe what she did. She jumped right out of the car while it was still moving. Can you believe that? What a nut! Accidents happen, I suppose. The car ran right over her head and killed her, instantly. It wasn’t his fault. How was he supposed to stop that?

 

Junior panicked and split. He got out of there slick as snot.

 

That’s why he got pulled over to begin with. But he ‘fessed right up. He didn’t try to run from the law or anything. So they put him in jail.

 

Normally…normally, when something like that happens to, say, just a regular ol’ Joe, they’d charge him with involuntary manslaughter, but Junior was an ex-con, so they threatened to charge him as a habitual felon, which would have landed him in here for the rest of his life, probably.

 

Now, this is where the whole thing gets political.

 

See, you probably don’t know it, not having any first-hand experience in it yourself, but there are all kind of little deals that get made, behind the scenes, between lawyers and district attorneys. This stuff happens all the time. They’re all a bunch of crooks just scratching each other’s backs to get by. Just ask any of the cons in here. They’ll tell ya.

 

This is what typically happens. Say you have a lawyer who has ten easy cases, and he has one hard case. Well, he’ll work it out with the D.A. (like over golf, or dinner), so they can both come out looking good. The D.A. will go light on the ten easy cases, and then, just so he doesn’t look bad, he’ll slam the harder case. It happens all the time.

 

That’s what happened to our boy, Junior. They kept threatening him with “a bitch” ‘til he had no choice but to take the plea. He was scared not to take the plea, which was murder II, and got him twenty-five years. They scared him into it so that ten other cases could walk. So, you see, truly, Junior took the fall for a lot of guys. They probably don’t realize that. If you happen to bump into any of them, you might be kind enough to point this out. They’ll appreciate his sacrifice, I’m sure.

 

In the meantime, Junior, who used to be a habitual felon, is working as hard as he can to get back to court. Keep your fingers crossed for him. I know I will.

 

Okay, look. I’ve got to stop this nonsense. When I first started this rant, I intentionally chose to use sarcasm because I felt that it would help me convey my anger, while at the same time allowing me to be a little humorous. I thought the use of humor would make the subject matter a little more palatable. Here’s the problem. I have one more guy to write about, one more “example”. The thing is that he’s a dear, dear friend of mine. I know I’ve been a little harsh, but truthfully, I care about all of the guys I’ve written about so far. Some of them have been close to me. Some of them are still close to me. In a way, that’s why I find it so easy to be sarcastic about their circumstances. I care about them. If I didn’t care, it wouldn’t piss me off so much to know that they’re coming back. If I didn’t care, I could just say “hey, not my problem”.

 

Look, the thing is that, whenever I watch someone leave this place; hell, whenever ANY of us sees someone go home, we ALL get excited for them. Part of us leaves with them. I’ve walked out of that gate with a bunch of guys, and it has felt great every time. But, man, when you hear they’re back…well, it means none of us could make it out there, and that hurts, and I’ve had to come back a bunch!

 

A while ago, I guess it was about a year ago, actually, I was in the chow hall having dinner when this cat came in yelling. He had his hands up over his head. He was waving them and yelling, “I’m going home! I’m going home! You don’t have to look at my ass anymore!”

 

He went on and on like that.

 

Guys were laughing. I was laughing. It took a while for the place to quiet down. When it finally did, there was one single spontaneous clap. Before I knew it, all of us were clapping. We were all going home. That felt good.

 

Then, three months later, you flip on the TV to watch the morning news, and there he is. Just robbed a gas station, or stole a car, or killed someone. It shatters you.

 

My friend, Al, is 62 years old. He has been doing time for half his life, under “the installment plan”.

 

Al has probably been the closest friend I’ve had in here. I took a long time to figure out why that was. You see, Al and I really don’t have much in common. I’m an avid reader, and always have been. Al has only ever read one book – the Bible. It’s the only book he cares to read. Al grew up in a poor, rural, Florida farming community. He was a sharecropper’s son. I grew up in middle-class suburbia, the son of a nuclear consultant. Al is religious almost to the point of fundamentalism. I prefer to think of myself as spiritual. I have a very personal, very private relationship with my God.

 

So why did Al and I start hanging out together? I really don’t know why he hangs out with me. I suspect, in some ways, I fill a paternal need in him. A few times, when I haven’t felt the desire to attend church services, Al has become visibly upset with me, though he has only spoken openly about the subject on the rarest of occasions. Usually, the only real evidence of Al’s despair was the clench of his jaw, or the grief in his eyes. He wasn’t angry with me, as much as he was displaying a fatherly concern. I’ve always appreciated him for that. At times, I’ve been tempted to remind him that I have a father, a very good father, but so far, I’ve refrained from doing so because I know that it would only hurt him, and I don’t want to do that.

 

I started hanging out with Al because I love stories, and Al has some stories. One nice thing about this place is the stories. Everyone has some, and they are all fascinating. I learned a good while back to hang out with people older than I, not because they have more or better stories than people my age, but because they have developed the fine art of telling them, which only comes with time.

 

The first summer I was here, Al and I would get together every night after dinner and walk the perimeter of the fence. Lap after lap, hour after hour, I would ask Al questions and we would leave the prison together as he spoke of the hog slaughtering days of his youth, or the time his brothers brought the milk cow into the living room and put lipstick on her (jus’ ‘cause they was bored.)

 

He told me about his crazy sister who, one time, chomped down on her boyfriend’s thumb and refused to let go. She threatened to bite it off (she would have, too!) if he didn’t drive her clear across town. Well, he obliged, and unable to shift gears because his thumb was still between her teeth, drove her all the way across town in first gear.

 

When Al was a small child, his daddy would take him to juke joints. He’d put little Al up on the bar, and Al would dance to the music of guys playing “a box” (guitar) and some spoons, and “people would be a jumpin’ and a hollerin’”, and they’d throw coins at Al’s feet, up on the bar there, while he danced for’em.

 

One time, at lunch, we had been served oranges. Al started in on a story about how, at one point, he had lived on oranges for a whole week. He had sworn he would never eat another orange, but he still eats one every now and then. I asked why he had to live on oranges. He told me he had spent a whole week in an orange grove, and that’s all there was to eat. I asked why he had spent a whole week in an orange grove. He told me he was on the run from the law.

 

Al’s got all kinds of stories about being on the run. He has been on the run a lot. A whole lot. He has been in prison a lot, and has some great prison stories, too. Some of his stories are sad, some of them are scary, but a lot of them are funny – only because he makes them funny.

 

He’s soft-spoken. At times, he barely speaks above a whisper, and I have to ask him to speak up.

 

He reads his Bible every day. I think I’m one of the few people he has told this to – he was ashamed of himself when he told me …Al taught himself to read by going to church. He would memorize verses out of the Bible when they were read out loud in the prison church services. Then, he would go back to his cell and repeat them, over and over, committing them to memory. He’d mark pages to refer to and then look them up later. Slowly but surely, he started to put together simple words and phrases. Those led to sentences, and those sentences became his religion. I have a few pages of Al’s notes in my possession. At best, I think he’s about at a third grade reading level. In all fairness, for someone self-taught, who started so late in life, I don’t think that’s doing too bad. Al reads his Bible every day. He is sitting there reading it when I step out of my room in the morning. He reads it off and on throughout the day, and I have no doubt that if I were to go knock on his door right now, I’d find him with his Bible stretched out across his lap, with him carefully taking notes.

 

Here’s something to keep in mind before I go on. Just keep it in mind. You don’t have to think on it, or anything. One of Al’s sisters has been to prison for killing a man. Both of Al’s brothers have been locked up. One of them is currently on death row in Florida. Prisoners are not allowed to write each other. Al can’t write to, or receive letters from, his brother. It is very unlikely they will ever see or hear from each other again (until they meet at Zion’s gates). One of Al’s two sons has been to prison twice so far. Like I said, you don’t have to think on it or anything. It probably doesn’t mean anything.

 

I also need to explain a few things about “the new law”, just some things that people who have never been to prison don’t usually know.

 

I think the new law, or structured sentencing act, came about around 1996, in North Carolina. Other states have it. Some states that used to have it have repealed it.

 

What happened was that the taxpayers had gotten absolutely fed up with the prison system’s revolving doors. The stories all became too familiar: some guy would commit armed robbery, be sentenced to ten years. He’d stay infraction free and be back on the streets in a mere two or three years.

 

That’s why state officials came up with structured sentencing. They classified all the different crimes they could come up with, everything from murder 1 to returning videos late, and set specific lengths of time for each crime. They eliminated parole. Instead, you are now handed a minimum and maximum date. If you get a job and stay out of trouble, or stay in school and stay out of trouble, then it is possible to work your way down to your minimum from your maximum. Confused? It took me a while to understand it. I’ll use my own case as an example to clarify things.

 

I had never committed a felony before. When I was sentenced, I was given eight and one-half, to ten and one-half, years. That means that if I came to prison and did nothing but read books, watched TV, and slept, then, in ten and one half years, the state would have to let me go, no matter what. Also, if I came here, got in fights, hustled dope and homemade wine, then in ten and one half years, they would STILL have to let me go. However, if I get a job or go to school, then slowly but surely, I can reach my minimum date of eight and one-half years. Like right now, I’m assigned to school, so I “earn” six days a month off the ten and a half years, down to the eight and one half.

 

Now, once I’ve reached that eight and one half mark, I’m home free. I have no more incentive to do anything. There’s no parole. I can’t get anymore days knocked off. I’m going to do eight and one half years, no matter what. I’ve been down two and a half years now, and I’m about six months away from hitting that point. Personally, I’ll stay in school as long as you good taxpayers will fund it. I enjoy it. I would die of boredom without it. I can’t speak for my buddies, though.

 

Similarly, if you happen to be pulling a really long bid, say twenty-five to thirty years, there’s not a lot of incentive to do anything. You’ve got plenty of time to get around to it. Besides, when you’re looking down a thirty-year barrel, what’s another year here and there?

 

Philosophically, I’ve argued both for and against the new law. Obviously, the majority of inmates hate it. One time, I was standing with a group of guys who were complaining about it, and I said, “Yeah, but you gotta look at it from the taxpayer’s point of view. They got tired of watching us come in, get a slap on the wrist, and walk out.”

 

One of the other guys pointed out, correctly, that so far the new law has had no effect on the recidivism rates. My argument was that the reason for this is, no one knows about it yet. I mean, it’s only ten years old. My friend, Esa, was standing there with us. He had more time to do than all of us (I think thirty years). I said, “Hey, Esa, when you get out, you plan on doing anymore crime?”

 

Esa said, “When I get out, I ain’t even gonna litter!”

 

My argument against the new law is that, like my friend said, it’s ineffective. The only incentive to really do better is the motivation that some of us possess naturally, and others don’t. The prisons are becoming overcrowded war zones.

 

Actually, there are a lot of reasons. If you’re interested, you can do the research yourself. I want to get back to Al.

 

I asked Al one time if he thought he had grown up in an abusive home.

 

“Well”, he said thoughtfully,

“I suppose people might call it abusive this day and time. My daddy and mama fought, and he would hit her sometimes, but she would beat him just as bad as he beat her, sometimes.”

 

Like I’ve said, Al has been in trouble a lot. He wasn’t a drinker and he never did drugs, but he was a fighter. He’s got all kinds of great “liquor house fight” stories and more than a few “prison fight” stories. He has been shot and stabbed more than most of the guys I know who have been shot and stabbed – and that’s a lot!

 

Here’s what happened to land him in here this last time. I’ve got to omit some of it because I’m just not clear about it. Neither is Al.

 

Al was in minimum custody right before he got out last time. He was on work release, where he worked as a dishwasher and busboy for Shoney’s.

 

He had met a strong, Christian woman while he was in prison, and they had gotten married. He would get weekend passes, and they would spend the weekends together, and a few hours in the afternoons during the week, after he got off work and before he was required to get back to the prison.

 

Not too long before he was released, her diabetes, or, as he calls it, “her sugars”, had taken a turn for the worse. She had to have her legs removed. Al told me that they would sit in her room together for hours on end, reading the Bible to each other, and just talking. He told me this was the happiest time of his life.

 

A few months before Al was released, she passed away. I asked him once if he ever talked to her now, when he was alone – just curious.

 

He said “Yeah, most days.” Smiling, he told me, “Sometimes she even talks back.”

 

He went to Florida to visit his family. He spent some time with one of his sons. His niece drove him to different thrift stores and bought him clothes.

 

He came back to North Carolina and became very involved in his church.

 

For reasons still very much a mystery to Al, one night he just lost it. He doesn’t recall what happened. All he knows is that he flipped. A close friend of his from the church tried to subdue him, tried to control him, tried to stop him. Al beat that friend into a coma. He has no idea why he did it. He doesn’t remember it at all. I bet I know why. I bet you do, too. We’re not going to tell Al, though. He has been through enough.

 

In his very late fifties, under the new law, Al was sentenced to about thirty-five years in prison. He should get out when he’s about ninety years old. I’m sure he’ll do very well.

 

I never hear Al complain about time, not like the other guys.

 

Al likes his soap operas, his “stories”. He watches them every day after lunch. He has a job working as the chaplain’s assistant. It doesn’t require a lot. He sets up chairs for the services, and during the day, he shows inmates where the birthday cards, Christmas cards, Valentine’s Day cards, and get well cards can be found. The rest of the time, he’s busy reading his Bible and taking his notes. Sometimes he falls asleep on the job. He tells me he’s about ready to “retire.” Al’s getting old. Maybe he has been old.

 

The last day of autumn, the guards left the yard open a little late. During the winter months, we’re not allowed outside after three-thirty in the afternoon. This was the last day we’d be allowed outside until the following spring. It’s also the closest I’ve come to seeing the night sky since I’ve been down.

 

Al and I were walking together. They sky was a deep azure and burning orange. Beneath the prison lights, the dying grass glowed a vibrant green; it crunched beneath our feet as we walked the fence together.

 

I said, “Al, when do I get to laugh again?”

 

In his quiet, soft-spoken voice, barely above a whisper, he said, “Yeah, that can be hard.”

 

And we kept walking. We just kept on walking.

 

 

 

“And then the wall rose,

Rose slowly,

Slowly,

Between me and my dream,

Rose slowly, slowly,

Dimming,

Hiding

The light of my dream.

Rose until it touched the sky –

The wall.

 

(From “As I Grow Older, by Langston Hughes)

 

L’ Robert Veeder

 

 

 

Finely Broken- Part 1 (written when I was still incarcerated)

Okay, boys and girls. I’m armed with a brand new Bic Round Stic, medium point ink pen, a Tops 3M legal pad (which advertises itself as “the legal pad PLUS”. I have yet to figure out what the PLUS is), and an Oxford “Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.

 

I swear by Oxford. I was turned on to Oxford dictionaries years ago by an astute English professor, who passionately claimed that all other brands of dictionaries were only suitable for kindling. Don’t run out and burn your Webster’s yet. There have been times in my life, when in a crunch, I have been forced to stoop so low as to consult other inferior brands, and I have to admit that I have seen very little difference among them. Gasp! No, it’s true. However, I still prefer my Oxfords, if only out of habit, and they really have been good to me, so, I’m a loyalist.

 

Today, kids, we’re going to explore a long, difficult and interesting subject: recidivism. Say it with me now. Re-cid-i-vism. It is kind of a pretty word, but it’s an ugly subject. Hold on. Here’s the Oxford “Advanced Learner” definition:

 

Re-cid-iv-ist/ri’sidivist/noun (formal) a person who continues to commit

crimes, and seems unable to stop, even after being punished –

re-cid-iv-ism/izem/noun

 

That’s right. Habitual felons, career criminals, wheels (that’s what they’re called in here) “and the wheels on the bus goes round and round and round.” When will it stop? Nobody knows.

 

It’s a real phenomenon in here. I’ve met so many guys who are on their second, third, and fourth tours of our state’s lovely facilities that I thought it would be interesting if we sat down and discussed it together, once and for all, just you and I. Don’t worry. I’ll do all the talking. You just try and keep up, okay?

 

Let’s start with my buddy, “Cornbread”. We’ve known each other for close to two years now. We actually hung out some, for about the first month or so, of these two years. I quickly had to distance myself from him.

 

Cornbread is on his third tour of our esteemed institution. There is not a doubt in my mind that it won’t be his last time up this particular river.

 

The thing is that Cornbread is absolutely innocent! Just ask him. I mean, sure, he was busted with a bunch of meth (this time), and he’s certainly traveled down “the junkie’s highway.” But as he states (oh, so often!), his was a “victimless, non-violent crime.” I mean, he HAS alienated his entire family, and anyone else who spends any time at all with him, but that is NOT, I repeat, NOT, his fault. He got “hit with a bitch” (a habitual felon charge), and they cruelly loaded him up with time.”Those bastards!” He only has about three years left, and normally he would be eligible for minimum custody, but people keep starting fights with Cornbread. I mean, what’s he supposed to do? Should he just stand there and take it. He doesn’t start the fights. He never does. He’s the victim here.

 

As I’m writing this, our hero is locked away in the hole. He had a confrontation, this time, with the guy who runs the clothes house. Cornbread punched the guy a couple of times, in the mouth. Well, the clothes house guy had it coming. He refused to give Cornbread an extra pair of pants and an extra t-shirt. I mean, any of us would have done the same thing were we in poor Cornbread’s shoes. It’s just the right thing to do. Right?

 

This is actually the third time this month Cornbread has been placed in segregation (poor guy). They really have it in for him.

 

Well, you guys won’t have to worry about the big lug for too long. In a few short years, he’ll max out and be safely out of here and back on the streets with you, where he belongs.

To be continued…IMG_0995

The Accident

IMG_1478

 

Dissociation.

Some words just have a nice sound. Dissociation is one of those words for me. I just like the way it sounds.

I left the last bar of the day that night sometime around 8:00. I was bored. Exhausted. It was time for me to go. I waved a lazy good-bye to the girl behind the counter. Pretty girl. Pretty smile. If I had had more energy I probably would have flirted with her. I had been out late the night before, drinking, and I just didn’t have it in me. The crummy, nicotine stained apartment that I was living in was about three miles away, a pretty long straight shot. I had the option of going through town, which would have been traffic laden and busy, or to take the highway which ran parallel to the town roads. I opted for the highway. Less lights. Less people. Less chance of getting caught.

Things were pretty much going as expected. Driving drunk wasn’t an unusual thing for me. In fact, it was something that I did as often as not. After a while of intoxicated successes you start to think that the drinking and driving laws are really for those other people, the people that don’t know how to do it. The people that go to a Christmas party once a year, drink a little more than they expected, and stagger out the door towards home. I considered myself at this point a skilled professional. I smoked pot almost all day, everyday, and had for years at work, at home, driving. I left the bars drunk almost every night and, again, had for years. I had many friends in the bars that had lost their licenses, there was certainly no shame in that, and I figured that eventually it would happen to me too. I had experienced a few run-ins with the law, but had so far been lucky. So, at this point it was becoming like a never-ending game of hide-and-seek. I knew the roads, knew the towns, and had a pretty good idea of what roads to avoid for traffic stops. Also, there was kind of an underground network in the bars of people that would tell you which roads had traffic stops set up on them, which areas to avoid. So it was kind of like this huge game. I had reasoned that eventually, like many people I had known, I would get stopped, and probably lose my license. That would be inconvenient and expensive, annoying, but that was the price I would pay to maintain this lifestyle.

It was a huge game. I lost.

Everybody lost.

I wasn’t weaving down the road or anything like that. I wasn’t speeding. I might have been going five miles over or something like that. That was part of my strategy for pulling this off. Don’t go the exact speed limit. It looks too suspicious. Nobody goes the exact speed limit. I was driving a big, plain white, Econoline work van. It wasn’t mine, it belonged to the company that I worked for, but I drove it around everywhere, so I was pretty used to it.

 

It’s interesting. I’m still not exactly sure how it happened. This many years later it still confuses me. I finally did read a lot of the articles that were written in the papers regarding the accident, so I know what happened. I’m just still not sure how. It seemed like slow motion. There were weird lights up ahead. Something unusual was going on, and it was just as I was trying to decipher it that I crested this hill. There was a group of people in the road. Cars? And I remember thinking…or did I actually say it? “What the…” I’m still not sure what word finishes that sentence.

I remember trying to aim for the ditch on the other side of the highway. I remember seeing the ABS light activated on the dashboard. And then…

Well, next I was between the seats in the front of the van. There was a tangy, familiar smell, and some sort of smoke filled the van. Vinyl hung from the steering wheel looking for all the world like a deflated balloon, a giant used condom, and Ray Charles played stupidly on the radio, his warm, happy, voice so incongruent with my surroundings. “Basin Street is the street, where the e-lite always meet…” And so I wonder if I’ve been hurt. I try to move and find that it’s easy. I pull myself up into the seat taking in my surroundings. Gun-smoke. That’s what the smell is. Why gun-smoke? And then I put it together, that’s how the airbags were deployed. The windshield is cracked. The hood of the van is all bent up and there is steam coming from the radiator. The alarm is going off. I’m still confused. I’m not sure what happened. Did I hit the ditch? Did I hit those cars? This doesn’t make sense.

From there it all becomes elusive, like a dream, like a nightmare, and I have all of the pictures, but I can never seem to put it all together in a way that makes sense. It’s exactly like trying to tell someone about a dream. It seemed so real and seemed to follow such a logical path when it was happening, but when I try to explain it, well, it’s like trying to hold water in your fist. It just keeps slipping away.

I get out of the van. There’s a man running across the road. Is he a fireman? He’s screaming an anguished, frustrated, “Noooo!” And there are people running and standing still and yelling. A woman is on a phone and I hear her say that they need many, many ambulances. There are…are those bodies? It’s hard to tell what is going on. I need to help, but I don’t even k now how, and I am, I don’t know what I am. Confused? Frightened? Drunk? All of my cells want to run from the fear. All of them. I’m not sure why I am not running. I’m just standing there idiotically, my hand clasped over my mouth.

Behind me I hear a voice.

“Who did this?”

Click.

It all comes together.

Click.

And that’s when I start screaming.

But it doesn’t end there. I have to help. I don’t know how. I am drunk, confused, terrified. I feel sick. Overwhelmed. I see a body alone on the ground and I run to it. It’s a man. He is in pain and I see confusion on his face. The blood. My god the blood! It is everywhere. It’s as if the entire world has been coated in blood. I have this very odd realization- whenever I have read books where blood is mentioned it is always described as this metallic smell, but standing here I realize that I don’t smell the blood at all. It’s everywhere I look, a world painted red, but I don’t smell it at all. I tell this anguished man that he has been in an accident. He looks so bad. So hurt. I want to hold him, to comfort him, but I am afraid to touch him, afraid to move him more. His body is a distorted, unnatural, mangled mess. I walk away.

I walk away. I sit down on the ground, shuffle around for my cigarettes. Light one. I pull my knees in towards my chest. To my left there is another body there on the ground a few feet away from me. No movement.

I am rocking, rocking, rocking, rocking, rocking.

None of this seems real. It doesn’t feel like it is really happening. It’s like a bad dream, a terrible, terrible dream. It feels like I am outside of myself, outside of my body, like I am watching it all happen.

Dissociation.


  • A Few Years Later…                                                         A Body In Motion

     

     

    Walking around the fence’s perimeter, another lap, another…quarter mile? I wonder if it really is a quarter mile. That’s what I’ve been told, but there’s no way to be sure, really. How many times have I made this particular journey? Hundreds? Thousands? I should know the distance by now, or, if not the exact measurement, then at least the number of steps. I suppose I could have counted the steps, but I’ve learned enough to know that counting is a bad habit to fall into in here. It’s dangerous. Sure, it could start with something simple, like steps, but it wouldn’t stop there. Next it would be…what would it be next? Months? Yeah, probably months, and then weeks, and then days. No, it’s better not to count. Better just to keep on walking.

    I start into the longest stretch of the walk. On my right, about sixty, or maybe it’s closer to one hundred feet away, I see the long, tangled vines of what I’m guessing to be sweet potatoes. I hope it’s NOT sweet potatoes. They grew sweet potatoes the first year I was here, and that’s all we ate for months after the harvest: sweet potato bread, sweet potato pancakes, candied sweet potatoes, sweet potato pie. I don’t mind sweet potatoes; they’re okay. really, but…well, too much of a good thing…

    Last year they grew cotton. The year before that it was soy. I wonder if there are rules about what the farm next door can and can’t grow. Corn might be a bad idea. Even tobacco grows pretty high. It doesn’t grow as high as corn, but it grows high enough that I can see where it might be considered a threat, a “security risk.”

    I pass a sign hanging from the galvanized steel linkage. In sharp, red letters it warns: “STAY BACK TEN FEET.” I ignore the threat, like everyone does. The well-worn path that I’m hiking, the one created by the footsteps of thousands of men before me, is a mere

     

    two feet from the fence. The only time I can recall this close proximity being a problem was about six months ago. There was a new guard training in the gun tower. Poor kid. She didn’t know that this is the path we always tread. One of the guys was out doing his walk, this walk, two feet from the fence. She shouted down from the tower for him to “Get back ten feet!” He ignored her, of course. Must have thought she was yelling at someone else. She panicked and pulled the gun on him. Staring fiercely down the barrel of the rifle, she screamed, “I said get away from the fence.” Her shrill voice sounded more full of fright than authority. The whole yard broke into fits of laughter. Guys were hooting and hollering, falling off of the weight benches. The basketball game came to a standstill in order to watch the drama unfold. I don’t know how it ended. Bored with the hysterics, I walked back inside. I know she didn’t shoot him. Everyone laughed about that event for days afterwards: “She pulled a gun on him! Stupid. Can you believe that? She pulled a gun!”

    What a riot.

    Sometimes it frightens me, how easily I’ve adapted to this place. The language, my language itself, was the first notable change. Not just the semantics, either – though those have changed, too – but I expected that. No, what frightens me is the way I approach subjects now. For example, early on, when guys would ask what I was in for, I’d go into a long soliloquy describing the unfolding of the nightmare that landed me here. I’d carefully explain how a car ran a stop sign one evening, slammed into an on-coming vehicle, and injured someone. I’d tell how a group of people stopped to help, and then how I came over the hill too fast to stop, but then, I had been drinking, too, and…

    These days, when someone asks what I’m in for, I shrug and say, “Car accident. Killed a bunch of people. I was drunk.” And I shudder inside at how easy that has become to say…”killed a bunch of people.” That should never be easy to say, but the guys closest to me over the years have grown bored with my despair. They have their own hells to face, so I’ve learned to shrug off my despondence out of…politeness?

    A mockingbird lands easily, tauntingly, between the glinting blades of coiled razor wire that shrouds the top of the fence. She chatters at me angrily in some unknown tongue. The fence is what makes this a prison. The buildings are just buildings: concrete, steel, glass, bricks, tar – just buildings. The earth that the buildings rest on, cooled by their looming shadows, is just earth. In a thousand years, long after nature has had her way with mankind’s “progress”, this will still be earth. The mockingbird doesn’t know this is a prison, a penitentiary, a place for penance. No, what makes this a prison, what confines me to the point of suffocation, is that fence, that quarter mile run of metal mesh, tangled barbed wire, and accordioned razor wire. I can see freedom through it, but I can never reach out and touch it from here. If not for that fence, this wouldn’t be such a bad place; free food, free rent, and I’m only lonely when I want to be lonely.

    If I could just saunter over there and pluck one of the leaves from a sweet potato vine, smell its fresh, green scent, rub its milky smoothness against my skin. If I could just do that, then this wouldn’t be a prison.

    Dragonflies busily zoom here and there, across the yard, over the fence, to some unexplored water source, some mythological Xanadu. If I could just follow them to that magic fairyland, just hear the splash of water, smell the cool, damp earth, dip my fingers into that dark, liquid pool; if I could do that, then this wouldn’t be a prison.

     

    What I really want, desire…CRAVE, is a day off. I want my innocence back, just for one day. I want to enjoy the quiet creaking of a porch swing, to chase fireflies in the twilight, to thump a watermelon under the blazing sun and listen for the telling ring of ripeness. I want to not know death. That would be freedom! But I’ll never be that free again.

    It surprised me to learn, in here, just how malleable time can be. Get a steady routine going and the years fly by. Shave every other day. Lift weights for an hour or so daily. Read voraciously, because a good book is the closest thing left to actually living. So that’s the trick. Get a good, steady routine and watch the seasons melt into each other. Of course, the downside to that is that I’m aging faster, too. Well, it’s about time I grew up. I’ve been playing this Peter Pan thing for too long as it is, and it has cost too many people far too much.

    Step after step, lap after lap, mile after mile, always watching the ground, watching the grass blur beneath me, I walk this fence, going nowhere, just walking, because the body needs motion.

    Sometimes I imagine that I’m training to hike the corridor of the Appalachian Trail. That’s one of my dreams of freedom. I’ll march the twenty-seven hundred miles of mountain ridges and flowering valley floors, and I’ll remember prison. I’ll look on all of nature’s splendid perfection, and I’ll muse to myself that I’d never be able to complete that stretch of walking if it weren’t for the endless miles I’d laid down behind these walls. It’s important to dream.

     

    Other times, I’m just walking to escape the ghosts that haunt me now. If I walk fast enough, or far enough, or both, then maybe they’ll give up and leave me alone. (They never do.)

    Some days, I walk to feel the sunshine warming my bones, browning my skin. The sun is a shimmering reminder that the world will be okay. Life will prevail.

    I walk in the rain for solitude. I revel in the drenching sky-water rolling off my face, baptizing me, healing me, renewing me.

    I walk in the winter for the winds, which is another form of travel for me. I begin in the Arctic, move down from Canada, across endless plains, and blow out to the Atlantic. I’ve wandered with the wind many, many times.

    Mostly, though, I just walk.

    I walk.

    I walk towards some future, away from my past.

    I walk.

    With countless miles to go, I walk.

    It’s better not to count the miles. Counting can be dangerous.

    I walk.

    I walk.

    I walk.

    A body in motion, I walk.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    P1030258

The Day of The Trial

You would think that you wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before an event like this. I mean, the rest of your life is being determined tomorrow by people that you have never met before, that only know the things about you that they have read. Also, I didn’t really have an idea of what this day would look like. My lawyer and I had determined that I would go with an “open plea”, which was basically saying that I was 100% guilty and that I would leave it up to the judge to decide what would be best for everybody involved. To tell you the truth, I’m still not certain what the difference between an open plea and “guilty” is.

My folks had bought a suit for me to wear from the local Wal-mart that fit my lawyer’s instructions. Originally he had wanted me to wear the orange jumpsuit that we all wore in jail because it looked more pathetic and he thought that might garner some sympathy from the judge, but then the jail changed their wardrobes to two-piece outfits that were orange and white horizontal stripes. They didn’t make you look pathetic so much as they made you look guilty. So, the day of the trial it was decided that I would wear a blue blazer, white shirt, khaki pants, a non-descript tie… wanting to keep something of myself in this outfit, I had asked my folks if I could wear suspenders instead of a belt, but they were afraid to do anything different than what Rick had instructed. I wore a belt.

Amazingly, I slept pretty well the night before. I think that a lot of this had to do with the fact that I had been in jail for so long, and nothing really seemed to change much from one day to the next. So, while my whole life was do to change drastically, it certainly didn’t feel like it. I skipped out on the red-pod evening circle up and pray. I just wanted to be alone, to read a little bit, to listen to my radio, and to think for a while.

There are a lot of resources available for free to guys who are locked up. If you want a bible, or a Qur’an you can always get one for free. There are organizations that offer bible courses and even offer “degrees” through the mail if you are incarcerated. I had sent off for a couple of things while I was in jail. One of my favorites was the story of “Peace Pilgrim”, a woman who walked continuously across the country carrying nothing but a comb, preaching nuclear disarmament to the masses. I loved her. I loved her organization a lot too, but there was something about her simplicity that truly moved me. I had torn her black and white picture out of the book that her organization sent me and had folded it up and put it in my Gideon’s bible. Other inmates told me that I was allowed to have a Gideon’s bible with me, and truly I had grown quite attached to my little bible if for no other reason than its cultural familiarity, but if I was going to be raked over the proverbial coals in the morning then I wanted Peace Pilgrim there with me, to comfort me.

I woke up early.

I woke up and was wide-awake and couldn’t sleep anymore, early in the morning, before they unlocked the cells or turned on the lights. I sat in the cell in the early morning darkness- nervous? Apprehensive? Fearful? Maybe even a little excited that I would finally find out what was going to happen next. It was too dark to read in the cell. I sat up, leaned the weight of my body against the wall, wrapped my blanket around my shoulders, put the headphones in my ears and turned on my radio.

I had developed this odd habit of listening to whatever I could find on the radio that was the most mundane, the most inconsequential. I liked to listen to evening traffic reports, or farm futures. There was something so life affirming in this. It was so very different than any part of my existence. It sounded so easy. These little things mattered so much to someone out there. It mattered whether or not it rained that morning to someone. It was really important to someone if traffic happened to be moving slowly on 40 east right now. There was something really innocent about these things that I loved and missed dearly. I wanted the things in my life to be so easily governable. I wanted the frustration of a traffic jam, the concern of weather. Nobody has ever been stabbed by weather.

So, I turned on the morning radio, an AM station. They were belting out the morning news as usual; only this morning the bright staccato voice was saying my name, something about “Sentencing will take place today for Larry Veeder…” I listened distractedly with a grim fascination. It felt so otherworldly; the name wasn’t right- I go by my middle name Robert, not my first name, Larry, which is what my father, whom I was named after, goes by. It was a distinction that would be altogether lost in my years in prison.

I wasn’t even allowed my own name.

Finally, the cell doors were opened, breakfast was served, and immediately afterwards many of the guys in the block went back to sleep. I showered. I waited. Charmed was playing on the television, back to back episodes, a show that I had never actually watched, but somehow it seemed perfect for this morning. It was easy to tune in and out of at will. Somewhere, people were bustling, moving frantically, worried over what this day would look like. My parents and close friends were filtering into a courtroom somewhere. My lawyer would be having coffee, talking strategies to his partners, and other caseworkers who had assisted him over the months. The victim’s families would be gathering somewhere hoping for…what? Vengeance? God, I hope not. Reconciliation? I had no idea. Outside of the eighth floor red pod, people were gathering with quiet and not so quiet anticipation, worry, anger, fear, and sorrow. But in here it was quiet. In here it was oddly still for the first time in over half a year. In here, I sat quietly on a stainless steel bench at a stainless steel table watching Charmed.

Waiting, which is an action that I had grown profoundly skilled at doing.

You would think that I would remember every detail, but honestly I don’t. I don’t remember what time they came to get me. I don’t remember the elevator ride down, or the long series of underground cinder block tunnels that led to the courthouse. There are a few things that I do remember: I remember that the guard that had escorted me upstairs to all of the jailhouse classes I took was working that morning. He was really nice to me, and had decided somewhere along the line that I was a good enough person that he hoped that I wouldn’t be locked up forever. He told me this that morning. I remember that once I was in the actual courthouse building, the wood looked dark, soft, and inviting, a stark contrast to my many months in jail. I also remember that they didn’t have a cell ready for me yet to be alone with my lawyer; they handcuffed me to a bench so that we could talk alone in the hallway for a few moments. He had a partner with him, someone that I didn’t know, but at this point it didn’t seem to matter. I had my little bible with Peace Pilgrim’s photo inside. He asked if I was nervous. I told him not really. The worst part, the night of the accident, was already behind me. This was just some odd formality. He nodded to his partner, who gave a knowing nod back. Later this would be what they told the local press. Then he told me to expect twenty-five years, but at this point, I just didn’t care anymore. What did it matter? My life was already over. What’s twenty-five years? I couldn’t even fathom who I would be in twenty-five years. It was inconceivable, just a number.

There was a guard in the cell with us most of the time. When we were alone, while I changed clothes, he offered me a cigarette. I simply couldn’t resist. I hated taking it from him. I had been so proud of the fact that I was finally nicotine free, but there seemed to be something so comforting, and familiar about it, even traditional- one last cigarette. Also, after so many months of guards being either angry or indifferent, it seemed rude to turn down this guy’s attempt at civility- I missed compassion.

My attorneys returned. We went over what I had hoped to say. I explained that if the families were there then I wanted to at least look at them and apologize, but my lawyers adamantly told me not to, I’m still not sure why. They said that I could say that I was sorry, but that I would have to face the judge while I did it, under no circumstances was I to face the families. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know…it still doesn’t seem right to me, but that’s what I did. I did whatever they told me to. This was their ballgame; I was just the ball.

Eventually we went into the courtroom to face the music. My parents were there, lots of friends were there and lots of people that I didn’t know at all. Again, it was different than anything I had seen on television. The judge asked me a bunch of questions regarding my competency to stand trial- “Do you understand the charges?” “Are you under the influence of any medications?” That sort of thing. Then the lawyers had some talking to do to the judge. Then anyone who had any relation to one of the victims that felt like saying something was allowed to get up and speak. Parents of one young man whom had been killed got up to talk about how admirable their son was, what a great kid he was, how proud of him they were; then I watched a video of him growing up, playing his drum-set on the back porch, riding his bicycle into a backyard pool. After that his girlfriend got up to say a few words about what a gentle person he had been. Then a victim’s mother got up to speak. Her son hadn’t been killed, thankfully, but he had been severely hurt, and while I was sleeping away my time in the county jail, lazily, he had been undergoing physical therapy. She hoped that I would spend whatever time I was given working on my relationship with Jesus. Another woman spoke about how her husband had been killed leaving her alone to raise her six-month old son. She expressed exhaustion, said that she had been too busy, and too tired to really grieve. It went on like this for a few thousand years it felt like. If I could have been granted one wish at that moment, it would have been to lay on the floor in the front of the courtroom, and to have any and everybody in the world come up and just kick the shit out of me as much and for as long as they wanted to; that would have been easier.

Eventually, everyone seemed to be finished, and it was my turn. They asked me if I had anything that I wanted to say. So, I stood up, and not facing the families, but instead facing the judge, a man that had nothing to do with this whatsoever, I said, “I am so, so sorry. These were good people just trying to help. I am so sorry that this has happened.” The judge declared a recess and I ran crying into my cell. The guard offered me another cigarette. I took it, and smoked gladly, a river of tears streaming down my face.

They brought me a tray of jail food, but I couldn’t eat it. So instead, I sat, waiting for the rest of the world to eat lunch. Then it was back on my feet, back into the courtroom, for the grand finale- sentencing.

Both my lawyer and the DA made some opposing remarks about what caused the accident, how sentencing should be handled, at one point the DA burst into tears and spoke of his own new-born child, and how he could only imagine the plights that these families faced.

Finally, the judge offered a few words, spoke of “a heinous confluence of events” mentioning that my “grief was real” and handed down his sentence. I was charged with 6 counts of involuntary manslaughter and 2 counts of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious bodily injury, and given 8.5 to 11 years at a state correctional facility.

I was wisped away to my cell, told to change clothes, and I was taken back upstairs to my cell. I was given no further instruction. Eventually, they would come to take me to prison, but I wasn’t told when. I made phone calls, called my aunt, my parents, a few friends, my sister, to tell them the good news. People were excited for me. I would still be young when I was released. That’s what people said. They said with relief, “Thank God, you’ll still be young when you get out.”

After that, I went up to my cell and fell sound asleep. The friends of mine who were still waiting for a court date started asking for my stuff before I shipped out. I had a pair of jailhouse tennis shoes. They cost about eight dollars in jail, but you could pick them up for a buck or two at the dollar store outside. Red wanted to know if he could have those. He said, “In prison, they’ll give you work boots.” I couldn’t wait for work boots. I gave him my shoes. Other guys wanted my collection of books, any extra batteries or stamps, extra toilet paper.

The next morning I overslept, missed breakfast. I was oddly happy, at least relieved. An inmate that I didn’t know showed up at my cell with a large orange garbage bag. “You headin’ out today, huh? Whaddya get?”

I said, “Eight and a half to eleven.”

He said, “Whew, that’s tight. You gonna hav’ ta stay busy; you wanna do eight and a half. What you takin’ wit you? Can I have some of this stuff?”

I said, “The shoes and batteries are taken. So are the stamps. You can have whatever’s left when I leave I guess.”

About that time they called my name over the intercom telling me to report downstairs with my belongings.

From there I was taken down to a holding cell that looked almost exactly like the suicide watch booth that I had first been admitted to. A few cells down from me I could hear the familiar scream of a heroin addict going cold turkey. This is how they handled withdrawal in jail, lock them in a cage and let them go at it. He was screaming, crying, and begging these pathetic cries. I really felt bad for him. There was graffiti around the window pane- mostly names with the amount of time they had gotten. I saw my friend Suki’s name scribbled in ink. He was from Uganda, had stabbed his roommate to death, when he caught her cheating on him. He had thought they were romantic partners. She had not. Suki, was a pretty nice guy to me. We would talk about Africa, Uganda specifically, and about the differences between the cultures there and here. I remember the funniest story he had told me. He said that he had come from Uganda to New York City and had flown in pretty late at night. He went to a bar that was filled to the brim with sparkling, bedazzled, attractive women. Not believing his luck, he called his friend that he was supposed to be meeting in the U.S. and insisted that he come meet Suki at the bar. Suki couldn’t believe so many attractive women could be in one place at the same time, with almost no men to compete with in chatting them up. An hour or so later Suki’s friend showed up and explained to Suki what a transvestite is. Suki couldn’t believe such a thing existed, and yet, here he was, surrounded by them. We laughed hysterically together over that one. Suki was a decent guy, and here was his name scratched out in blue ink…”Suki- 19 years 4 months”.

Eventually a sheriff showed up to take me to prison. He was gruff, sick, kept coughing and snorting a lot, and obviously didn’t feel well. I stood there as he instructed me in getting my shackles on. Shackles are different than handcuffs. These involved a special set of handcuffs, and then some kind of ankle restraints too. Once those were on a long series of chain was looped through a black box on the handcuffs, which went down to the ankles and back up, and a separate lock was put on the box. Now it was impossible to do much more than shuffle ridiculously down the hall. I couldn’t raise my hands more than a couple of inches because they were tied to my ankles. We made it to the door. He unlocked the keypad and then said to me, “Go ahead and get the door for me.” I thought he was kidding.

He wasn’t kidding.

I awkwardly twisted my body up so that I could open the door for him. We went out to the parking deck. Finally- Outside! The sky! Wind!

“The car is over there I’ll meet you there. You can go ahead and get in the back seat.” but I had no idea how I was going to accomplish any of this in these shackles.

Shackles! I couldn’t believe this. Is this who I was considered to be? Is this who I had become? I couldn’t believe it. I dreaded anyone seeing me at all. I dreaded anyone seeing me in the parking lot thinking that I was the kind of person dangerous enough to need to be restrained by shackles. It was amazingly humiliating.

To his credit, the officer opened the car door for me and instructed me in how to get into the car. He didn’t say much of anything, just coughed and hacked his way to Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C. where I would go for processing about a ten-minute drive from where we were. We pulled up to one giant fence. It opened. We drove through, and then the fence closed behind us, so we were entirely boxed in by fences and razor wire. Some guards came and did a complete search of his vehicle, including telescopic mirrors for looking under the car. I remember thinking, “Has this been a problem? People trying to break into prison?” I didn’t say a word. No one around here seemed to have much of a sense of humor.

Eventually, they decided we were all right and they let us in. Everything seemed gigantic. The fences were huge and sprawling. The buildings were ominous, foreboding, unwelcoming, and dark.

I remember very specifically feeling like I was being eaten, ravenously devoured, and swallowed whole, which, of course, I was.

 

 

 

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Why Jokes Matter

***This was one of the first things I ever wrote that received any attention. I think I had been locked up about two or three years when I wrote this for a prison English class I was taking. I entered it in a state wide writing contest and it won first place. Hope you enjoy.


 

My father is an intelligent man. By trade, he was a nuclear consultant; at least, that’s how he earned his living. I always thought of him more as a Renaissance man. He’s a skilled carpenter who enjoys woodworking and cabinet making. He’s well versed in world history, geography, economics, political science and an assortment of other subjects. He has a boating license and a pilot’s license. On all accounts, he is a pretty remarkable human being.

 

This is not what I want to write about, though. What I want to write about are his jokes. For as long as I can remember, my father has been telling jokes. He tells good jokes, bad jokes, dirty jokes, politically incorrect jokes, and on the rare occasion – very rare – he even tells a funny joke.

 

The first joke I remember my father telling is about a guy who walks into a doctor’s office with a frog on his head. The doctor asks, “Can I help you?” and the frog says, “Yeah, can you get this guy off my tail?” This cracked my father up to no end. I was just a kid when he began telling it, maybe six or seven years old, but after twenty-some-odd year, I still don’t get it. It doesn’t matter, though. He loved telling it, and we loved watching him laugh.

 

Over the years I’ve heard hundreds, possibly thousands, of jokes. I’ve heard so many jokes that when somebody starts to tell me, “the one about the guy who walked into the bar…”, I can easily rattle off a dozen. If I’m asked “How many ___ (fill in the blank) it takes to change a light bulb” I request the person to take a seat – this could take a while.

 

Flash forward to the very worst period of my life. I had just been in a devastating car accident. I had been in severe shock for days. I was on the brink of suicide and had been grasping at straws to try to find a reason to live. My body was trembling, shaking and involuntarily convulsing. Tears continuously rolled down my face. To top it all off, I was locked up in jail.

 

My parents drove to the jail from Alabama, a nine-hour drive, to try to comfort me. We were only allowed a one-hour visit, and that was with a 1” Plexiglas barrier separating us while we talked over a telephone.

 

My dad sat down, calmly picked up the telephone receiver, and started telling jokes. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to scream at him – , “This is hardly the time, Dad! I was just in a car accident that killed people! I’m not sure that I can live through this! Are you insane?” but I didn’t. I just listened and sat there staring at him in silent disbelief.

 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and have recently come to the conclusion that not only was his joke telling sane, it was the most perfect thing he could have done.

 

Another man might have lectured me about the terrible thing I had done, which I certainly didn’t need at that time. Another man might have told his son that everything was going to be o.k., which would have been an obvious lie. Any other father might have wept with grief, asking, “Why? Why did you do this?” I couldn’t have handled any more grief right then. I had enough of my own. My father told jokes.

 

Today, I don’t recall a single joke he told that day, but I remember the punch lines to every one of them, because they were all the same – “I love you, son.” That’s what he said, over and over.

 

“Why did the duck cross the road?”

 

“I don’t know, Dad.”

 

(Because I love you, son.)

 

“Three priests walk into a bar. The bartender looks at the priests and says, (I love you, son.)

 

How many blonds does it take to change a light bulb?

 

(I love you, son.)

 

I love you, Dad.


***Do me a favor and if you like this or any of my essays follow my site and share these so that others can follow my site as well. It helps me build a readership, which is important. Thanks!VMCT2651

Locked Up! (Conclusion)

I’m not sure why it worked like this. I expected to stay in processing, like my friends, for months. It may have been the media attention surrounding my case. I also had a friend that I used to play music with that had once worked as a caseworker at this very prison, so for a while I suspected that maybe he had something to do with it. I never did find out why, but I didn’t spend much more than a week in processing. Early one morning, and by early I mean around 2:00 am, I was instructed to gather my things and get ready to ship out. I would have breakfast, and then board the bus to my new destination, wherever that happened to be.

After breakfast we were taken to a waiting cell. There were about eight or nine of us in there, sitting on concrete benches that were built into the walls. We stared awkwardly at the ground not quite knowing what to say. I didn’t know what to expect. Frightened, anxious with anticipation, still sad that this was my new life, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know where we were going, how long it would take to get there. I had seen the rolling cages that are prison buses on the highways before, was that what we would ride on?

I’m not sure how long we were there waiting; It felt like hours. Eventually the awkward silences were broken and we guys started telling stories about their past lives prior to incarceration.

One guy said that this was his second time back inside. “That crack,” he explained. He said that he had gotten out and landed a good job driving an ice-cream truck, “mostly in the hood,” he said. Things had been going pretty good, but eventually he ran into an old friend that offered him a little blow. He took it, and one thing led to another and as he explained it he sat in that truck for about three days straight with a friend, smoking crack. He said,” Man little kids was walkin’ past us just shootin’ us da bird. They was pissed! We was out of ice-cream. What we couldn’t sell just ended up melting.” We were all falling over laughing, thinking of all of these kids looking at the empty ice-cream truck that had been sitting there for three days straight with the ice-cream man all jooked up on crack.

Another guy said for him it had been heroin. He told a story about him and this girl he had been shacking up with for a little while, “pretty girl,” he said. They ran out of heroin. He said that they came up with this idea where she would go to a local trailer park where a bunch of migrant workers lived and she would prostitute herself, so they could get enough money to buy some more smack. They had driven over there, and he had sat in the car waiting. “Man, she was gone for like 6 hours straight. I was thinking that we were gonna be rich! Sittin’ there, all excited. She came back and had like twelve dollars!”

“Twelve dollars?” Someone exclaimed with disbelief. “What was she doin’ in there all that time?”

“I have no idea. Never did find out. Fuck it, right?” We had a pretty good laugh over that too.

Finally, a guard came and we got on the bus. I was given a string of numbers and told to memorize them, but I wasn’t prepared for this. He just read them off to me and said, “Don’t forget these numbers!” as I boarded the bus, my little plastic shipping bag in my hand.

The inside of the bus was just a cage. The driver, and the guard that was riding with him were in a section completely separated from the rest of us. I could see a rifle up there. The rest of the inside just looked like an old school bus. About an hour and a half into the ride I started squirming, I had to pee so bad. I didn’t know what to do. I was pretty certain that this driver wouldn’t pull over to a gas station for me. I busied myself by looking at the people in the cars out the windows as we traveled down the highway, wondering where they were going. I missed my life. I missed having a life to miss.

My bladder was going to explode. I was sure of it.

The guy in front of me woke up and sat up. I said, ”Any idea where we might be going, or how long it will take to get there?”

“Naw, not really,” he said.

I sat there uncomfortably for a few more minutes.

“Man, I have got to piss.” I said, hoping he would interject some idea of how to go about this.

“I guess you should just go.” He said, uncomprehendingly.

A few more minutes. Finally I couldn’t take it any more. There was a drink cooler in the back of the bus with some paper cups next to it. I would just have to go back there and fill up those cups. They would just have to understand. I wasn’t going to sit here and pee all over myself. I stood up and walked to the back of the bus making a beeline towards the cooler. When I got there, to my amazement, I saw a toilet! Thank goodness. I had missed it in the early morning darkness when we were boarding the bus. Oh my god. Relief. That might have been the best pee I have had in my life so far.

We made one stop at a strange kind of prison depot. I stepped off of the back of the bus and the guard asked me for my number, the one I was supposed to be memorizing. I tried. “0-8-6-7-1-2-4-something?” “Wrong.” He said flatly. He handed me a paper bag with some kind of food in it. “Get in the cage,” he said as he checked my name off of a list. There was a giant roofed cage with about a hundred other inmates inside eating, talking, sitting on toilets. I stepped inside with everyone else and they locked the gate behind us. The guards ate. We ate. Finally, our lunch break was over. We boarded our buses again and took off to our new destinations. In my case this would be Eastern Correctional Institute, in Maury, North Carolina, where I would spend about the next four and a half years of my life, and where I would eventually meet the love of my life for the very first time, the most incredible, thoughtful, and loving person that I have ever known. And now, today, as I write these words, she is standing in the kitchen, in our kitchen, just a few short feet away. My heart.

My wife.

Kara.

Locked Up (Part IIII)

The next day during breakfast a guard came to me and passed me a slip of paper, some sort of pass. He said, ”After breakfast you need to go directly to the medical unit and see the dentist.” This place was a fortress. Lots of long, dark tunnels. I had no idea where I was supposed to go, but I reasoned that I could ask and eventually find my way there. I was kind of looking forward to it. It would be nice to go somewhere alone, un-escorted. So, I hurriedly ate my eggs, gave my patty away, and rushed off to the dentist.

Once there I knocked on the door, and waited for it to be unlocked. I gave the officer my pass. The medical unit looked like little more than a long, narrow hall, with a few small rooms here and there. The guard pointed to one of the open areas and said, “Wait in there until I come get you.” I walked down the hall a little ways and made a left into the area that he spoke of. Inside there were a few chairs, one small wooden bench, and what looked like a giant birdcage, just big enough to fit one person. There was a man inside of this cage. He was wearing a yellow jumpsuit. I had no idea what a yellow jumpsuit meant. I sat down next to him on the wooden bench.

He said a happy, exuberant even, “Hello!” I said hi back, and continued staring at the floor. He explained happily to me, “I here getting’ ma sugars washed.” I explained that I didn’t know what he meant. He explained that he had, “the sugars” and that about once a week he had to come down here and “get ‘em cleaned”. Nice enough guy, he seemed a little challenged. I asked if he meant that he had diabetes and he affirmed that this was true. I asked him what the yellow jumpsuit was for. Explained that he was in PC. I didn’t know what that meant, and I wasn’t sure that this was the guy to explain it, so I let it go. Mostly, I sat there thinking about the wooden bench, how it came to be, how long it had been here. I wondered who had made it. It had a Quaker furniture appeal to it. It was simple, even a little rough, but it felt nice, in contrast to all of the cold smooth metal and concrete surrounding us. This bench felt familiar and warm and….

“Veeder?!?” An officer questioned.

“Huh? Yeah, that’s me.” I answered.

Annoyed, she said, “Follow me.”

So, I said good-bye to my friend in the cage, told him good luck with his sugars. He said good-bye to me with cheer in his voice and a glean in his eyes, and I followed the guard down the hall to the dental area. It was a tiny, cramped space. They instructed me to take a seat in the chair. I did. The dentist came in and explained that this was just a check-up for processing. He wanted to know the last time, if ever, I had seen a dentist. I explained that I had gone just a few months before I was locked up to have my wisdom teeth removed and for a cleaning. He harrumphed skeptically, and asked to look inside my mouth. I explained that I had just come from breakfast, apologetically, but he seemed to ignore me. I opened my mouth and he looked inside. Less than two seconds went by. He sat back up and angrily said, “Why didn’t you brush before coming to see me this morning?!?” I explained that the guards had said to come straight here after breakfast. I didn’t know that I could go back to my unit and brush first. It didn’t matter what I said. He wasn’t listening. He was busy doing other things, writing things down in a chart, and reorganizing his tools. Whatever we were here to do this morning, he had already done. I was excused and told to return to my unit.

Most of processing went something like this for me. I went to a medical examination where I stripped naked. The doctor stood about eight feet away from me, instructed me to grab my testicals, turn my head to the side and cough. I followed his instructions, but tried to explain that I really didn’t know what I was supposed to be feeling for. He never responded, just told me to get dressed. We were done. I went to see a psychologist who asked me if I felt suicidal, informing me at the same time that if I did then they would put me on a suicide watch; So, of course, no, no, I did not feel suicidal at all.

Over a period of a week or so I went through processing. I was pricked and prodded, given eye-sight tests, blood tests, IQ tests, reading comprehension tests. I stood in lines talking to others about what they were going through. “How’d you get here? How much timed’ ya get?” I met a few guys that were still recovering from being shot by officers during their apprehension. “Got shot in the ribs, and they still gave me all this motherfuckin’ time!”

The guys that I was processing with were very nice to me. I think we were all pretty considerate to each other. We would have talks about what we wanted to watch on television that night, and these were always pretty considerate. They knew that I didn’t have any money so they took a collection up and bought me some rolling tobacco, and some snacks to tide me through. I told them that I really couldn’t pay them back unless we ended up at the same camp; They didn’t care though, they said just to pay it forward.

Eventually, I was taken to meet my caseworker. It was an odd conversation. She talked to me as if I had some idea of how this all worked. She asked if I wanted to stay at the prison that we were at so that I would be close to family and friends. But this prison only allowed one phone call a year! No thanks. I explained that most of my friends had fallen away over the past several months, and now mostly it was just my family that would be coming around. No, I didn’t really need to be here. What I really wanted, I told her, was to work on my education. I explained that when I was outside, I had always heard that people in prisons were going to colleges. I wanted to do that. I had had a little college back when I was nineteen or so, but I had dropped out during the second semester. I wanted to go to college. Was that an option? She looked skeptical, said that she would see what she could do, but that it really didn’t work like that, but she would try. Our interview was over. I was told to return to my cell.