22 July, 2010

Cellmate Freakshow, Part Three: Hoss


[In the typical two-man living arrangements prisoners are used to, there are many ways for problems to arise. Personality conflicts, clashing lifestyles, differences in levels of personal hygiene — these factors lead to an almost infinite variety of tensions. Some people are lucky enough to get a cellmate with whom they can comfortably coexist. Some aren't. This is an account — the third in a series — of one horrible cellmate I once had.]

"I remember now: I was at the bench press and he was messing with me, saying, 'I'm gonna get that headband from ya!' And damned if that dirty motherfucker didn't!"

"Hoss, do you suppose you might have just left it somewhere? I can't imagine him wanting to steal it," I said, trying to talk the pacing 300-pound madman out of this latest delusion.

"No, I remember him saying he was gonna get it. Soon as I set it down, he said. I remember it, Byron; I do."

"Did you look behind your footlocker?"

"It ain't there! I wore it up to the gym, don't you remember?"

"I didn't notice. Why don't you just check around the cell. It'll turn up."

Eyes as big as truck headlights, he stared at me like I was the one with psychiatric issues, then slowly moved to perform a noncommittal search for the missing strip of fuzzy elastic.

Locked up for murdering his elderly grandfather and burning down the farmhouse they shared, Hoss didn't belong in prison. Ever since he was fourteen, living in that single-stoplight town in southern Missouri, the Cosa Nostra had been trying to recruit him. Grandpa was one of their assassins and, since Hoss has witnessed the offing of hundreds of people at his hand, it was only natural that they would want the young man to join. He knew so much; what else could they have done — killed him? But defiant Hoss refused them time and time again, wanting no blood on his own hands, and the Italians eventually tired. They told Grandpa to "take care" of the problem. Hoss claimed he acted in self-defense. Where he belonged was at Biggs, the state mental hospital.

"Maybe," I suggested, "it's under the bunk. Check there."

"It can't be. I know I had it on when I left for rec." But he huffed and got down on hands and knees anyway, to look under the bed.

After sharing a cell for six months, I had a decent idea of how to handle him when he got this way. Inmates I talked with asked me why I didn't simply tell him he was out of his mind, try to show him all the ways his notions couldn't possibly be real. The simplest answer is that I doubted it would work. An inveterate talker, Hoss loved telling stories — about his travels to Israel, about the knock-down fight he got into with Billy Bob Thorton over Angelina Jolie, about working the exotic animal auction where he met Pamela Anderson, about attending clandestine lessons in alchemy with Annie Lennox in Egypt, about the time Leonardo DiCaprio offered him a million dollars to stop telling people he was Leo's biological father. Often, Hoss wrote long letters to the Hilton family (yes, those Hiltons): "Tell Paris she's a sweet girl but that I never thought of her that way." He once sent a seven-page typewritten letter to the Osbournes, whose reality show aired on MTV at the time. Where he got the addresses I have no idea. No one ever wrote back, but no one ever complained to the prison about his mail, either. Maybe one of the wizards that he knew had cast a protection spell over him. Or perhaps it was an elf.

Many thought it was a put-on, that Hoss was only playing the role of a paranoid schizophrenic to wrangle his life sentence down to something more manageable. If this were the case, the depths to which he'd plumbed his character's psyche were beyond any method actor. Never did I ever witness so much as the flicker of a lapse. He was in deep.

"What about in with your dirty laundry, there?"

Hoss was near tears. "He told me he was gonna get it. He did."

Shaking his head, he reached down into the mesh bag containing his unwashed clothes. One by one, he lifted from it socks, underwear, T-shirts the size of awnings. Up came the loop of terry cloth that had caused him so much distress. In that moment something like calm came over him. Quavering vanished from his voice. He deadpanned, "Oh, here it is. Always the last place you look, ain't it?"

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