29 July, 2010

Cellmate Freakshow, Part Four: Bob


[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 fourth in a series — of one horrible cellmate I once had.]

Skin gray as dishwater, suffused with the inexplicable odor of ketchup, Bob was old. His shuffling feet and septuagenarian stoop suggested he was even older. He also had fewer personal effects than anyone I've yet to know. The day he moved in, it took him no time at all to situate himself. Bible, box of tissues, nubby pencil, battery-powered alarm clock — these things turned his footlocker into a nightstand. On the desk he found a home for his pile of Jehovah's Witness magazines next to the heap of medications for blood pressure, his liver, his kidneys, his prostate, his colon. If the medication couldn't take care of him, maybe Yahweh would; Bob was covering all his bases.

The tracheotomy left him a man of few words. It's just as well. All he ever switched on his speech box for was complaining — proclamations that followed the fanfare of a pissed-off bumblebee. Bzzt! "That guy doesn't have a brain in his head." Bzzt! "Stupid son-of-a-bitches can't even count." Bzzt! "Them punks got no respect for their elders." When his batteries ran down, he settled for lots of head-shaking.

Awake! magazines were the closest he had to a pastime. Wheezing forward to pull one at random from the tower, he opened to a random page and read. Soon he clawed for his pencil and Bible and began underlining the graphite-smeared leaves of the Good Book. This occupied him for hours, day after day, for months. Besides to underline more passages, I never saw him revisit those pages. I wondered about the exercise's point, besides killing time.

When he wasn't deep in religious paraphernalia, he was staring at the floor. Or sleeping. Bob had no hobbies, no friends; he left the cell only rarely to bathe, to visit the infirmary, to eat, and to sharpen his pencil. He was depressing, but at least he didn't snore.

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?"

15 July, 2010

Arthouse à l'Improviste



Every so often, in the midst of the humdrum expectedness, a remark or situation will pop up that's sufficiently out of place within the context of prison, to delight me. Perched on a stool outside my door, the other night, I must have looked interested in conversation despite the book in my hands. Maybe it was the fact that most of the wing's residents were holed up in their cells, watching movies, and I was among the six who weren't. Whatever the reason, my neighbor Jesse, a young transplant from suburbia, passed me on the way back from the ice machine and asked the obvious: "Not watching any of the new channels?"

The prison doesn't have a digital cable subscription, but that doesn't stop our provider from giving its customers the occasional teaser — you know, just to let us know what we're missing. Holiday weekends in particular mean those inmates with digital TVs sometimes get to enjoy a couple days of premium content — Starz, HBO, Cinemax — before we're back to basic cable. I'm not one who owns a television with a digital tuner, so I only get grapevine hearsay about such programming.

"No," I reminded him. "I've got one of the old TVs."

"Oh man, that's right. My cellie and I have been watching this IFC since yesterday." He grinned. "We hardly slept. You'd really like it, I think — independent films, some really weird stuff."

Before this, I wouldn't have guessed Jesse for a film buff, but then and there we fell into a discussion, started in on the outr√© madness of R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet "hip-hopera," the various factors making Being John Malkovich both commercially palatable and subtly brilliant, the "tangent universe" of Donnie Darko — not your typical convict conversation. He welcomed me to pull my stool into his doorway and join the penitentiary picture show.

So I did. Just in time for the beginning of The Usual Suspects, too. Afterwards was a funny little black-and-white short with David Arquette, called Nosebleed, that made the three of us laugh. Bags of popcorn were microwaved, cans of Pepsi were proffered, and, for a marvelous couple of hours, I completely forgot where I was.