27 December, 2011

An Announcement

This recently appeared on the closed-circuit TV channel that offers menus, recreation schedules, and sundry announcements to the Crossroads inmate population.


Only Honor dorm Offenders are allowed to buy the following:

Microwave Popcorn

Dryer Sheets

A CDV may be issued if found in your possession
A CDV is a disciplinary write-up, accumulation of which will get one placed in administrative segregation. Anyone who thinks, as some evidently do, "Oh, at least Byron's safe there," or, "It must be nice not having to worry about bills," should consider for a moment having to abide a place where fabric softener can get you exiled, stripped of your belongings and put under lockdown.

11 December, 2011

On the Spectrum, in the Shadow of the Savant

Regular Pariah's Syntax readers know I'm an Aspergian — that is, someone with the autistic spectrum disorder called Asperger's syndrome. Asperger's is a neurological condition that makes itself most visible through the emotional internality, social disconnectedness, and narrow range of (typically geeky) interests of those who were born with it; although, constellations of other traits are necessary for a diagnosis. The characters Spock and Data, from the first two Star Trek series, pretty well represent the archetypal Aspergian — logical, unflinchingly honest, and decidedly alien among their peers.

Having been born with a brain wired a little differently than most, I've been assigned any number of labels in my life; "normal" (unless linked to the prefix "ab-") hasn't been one of them. For this reason, a recent conversation with a friend, after he expressed some puzzlement over my interest in autism awareness, was unusual.

I reminded him of our previous brief discussion of Asperger's. He said, "I guess I don't really see it, Byron. I mean, autism is a pretty serious disability and you don't... you aren't..." he trailed off. "Jeez, this sort of thing was so much easier to talk about in the days before political correctness. What I'm saying is that I'd expect you to be more — "

"More like Rain Man?" I cut in, predicting the usual reference point.

"I know this sort of thing exists on a spectrum, but yeah, I guess. Those savants have very pronounced abilities and you — you seem pretty normal."

And there it was. True, I don't recite ad nauseam the names, populations, and founding dates of every county in Ireland. I'm able to verbalize with some proficiency and occasional elan. I can take care of myself outside of an institutional environment. To one whose concept of autism was formed by Hollywood tropes, I suppose mine does seem far removed from Rain Man's myopic, closed-circuit mindset.

My friend, however, was right in part. Autism is comprised of a spectrum that encompasses a wide variety of conditions, many of them seemingly unconnected. People familiar with this spectrum generally recognize easily how, and where on it, I fit. What my friend's remark reminded me was that most people aren't familiar. Despite some inroads to the awareness of society at large — the minor film Adam, a character on the PBS children's cartoon Arthur, the bestselling memoir Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's — Asperger's remains largely misunderstood.

Why is hardly a wonder. First studied in the 1940s, the condition took fifty years to reach the revered pages of the psychiatric professional's bible, the DSM-IV. Even with that, it was not until work began on the DSM 5 (slated for release next year) that official acknowledgment was made of Asperger's syndrome as one of the many forms of autism, rather than it being a separate, unrelated disorder. In practice, AS has been regarded as an autistic spectrum disorder for decades; however, clinicians making diagnoses during that time have had to rely on sources beyond the DSM's hallowed pages, including the extensive research of AS specialist Doctor Tony Attwood and schools and medical centers worldwide. Publication of the new edition of the DSM will mean even greater understanding of Asperger's within the mental health community, which itself may well lead to a tipping point for widespread AS awareness.

The accepted figure is greater than one percent: one out of every eighty-six American children has an autistic spectrum disorder, and the overall national ratio of neurotypical to autistic citizens hovers near 110 to one. Of these spectrumites, it's accepted that roughly one in ten have any outstanding savantlike abilities, of which my friend spoke. Exceptional mental prowess in a narrow area is an appropriate characteristic for a fictional character to have, to make his condition easily recognizable. It makes a lousy benchmark in the real world, though. The vast majority of us on the spectrum have our tics, sensitivities, and obsessions writ large, while our displayed talents may be less than cinematic. Our challenges for this are no less real.

It so happens that I'm exceedingly good with computers — hardware and software alike. I have a knack for the mechanical, and think little of tackling car- and appliance-repair jobs that would intimidate many ordinary people. Given a bit of time to discern its ins and outs, I can quickly conjure a pleasing tune on a previously unfamiliar musical instrument. But are my abilities in these areas savantlike? Absolutely not; they're proficiencies, not superhuman powers. At some point, though, "human calculator/calendar/encyclopedia," Hollywood's shorthand for "autistic," got itself enmeshed in the collective consciousness, thereby minimizing, if not outright discrediting, us non-savants. The fact that I don't think solely in, say, algebraic equations doesn't negate my sometimes debilitating sensitivity to sound, smell, and touch. Not being able to tell you the day of the week on which any given historical date fell doesn't make it any easier for me to understand the look you just gave me. I can't flawlessly reproduce a musical arrangement after a single hearing, but this doesn't make me less apt to get nauseous whenever something unforeseen disrupts my preplanned schedule.

For most of my life I was thought of as an egotist, a weirdo, an antisocial jerk. To some extent, I guess I am all of these things. They often go with the territory of being an Aspergian. Telling people this lends my sincere apologies more apparent legitimacy, on the occasions when my obtuseness, abrasiveness, and reclusiveness are misconstrued and cause offense. It is in such instances that my status as an Aspergian most often comes to light. Otherwise, I don't really see the point of bringing it up: "Pass me the salt, please. And, incidentally, my brain prohibits me from being instinctively empathetic." There's a time and a place.

First-person accounts of Aspergians "coming out" to friends and family are full of reactions like my friend's. Dismissiveness like that can be frustrating, but I know that his intention wasn't to belittle what my differences have forced me to contend with throughout my life, which is why I thanked him. To reach a point at which anyone could say, for better or worse, that I bore some resemblance to "normal" has been a long, fraught journey. Personally, I often see only how far I remain from that point. It's reassuring to know I've succeeded in convincing at least one person.

02 December, 2011

All-Day Discontentment, Courtesy of Some New Sheets

My morning's predictability is broken by a delivery of brand-new sheets — replacement for anyone who's tired of sleeping on their holey, dingy, or otherwise less-than-perfect current set. Crisp, white, and machine-folded, the new ones seem like such a boon until I press them down into soapy basin water to wash out their starchiness and am struck by a memory, from another lifetime, of shopping boutiques all over the city for the perfect high-thread-count bachelor bedding. Consequently, I am astounded by my endless capacity for these sorts of mundane melancholies, and by the innocuous stuff that triggers them.

The new sheets, though run through the dryer with not one but two sheets of fabric softener, remain stiff. They're also doubtless infused at the factory with a special formula that induces numberless dreams of bygone days. Tonight, before I sit to write a letter to a friend, I fix myself a late cup of coffee. I am fully aware that doing so is less to enjoy a warm after-dinner beverage than to put off the inevitable.

23 November, 2011

Invitation to the Ball — er, Conference

Not even imprisonment keeps invitations to shindigs from being sent my way. To wit: the full-color glossy brochure that shouted at me, from today's mail, to register for yet another writers conference. This time, it's the 2011 AWP Conference & Bookfair in Chicago. So many literary luminaries will be present! Philip Levine! Margaret Attwood! Edward Hirsch! Hundreds of panels and readings! Dozens of receptions, dances, and unofficial off-site events.

Yes, dancing. My envisioning of a writers' dance is a grown-up analog to the fifth grade end-of-year school formal I once endured, only with crowds of other rigid, pallid killjoys jockeying with me for elbow room at the sidelines. I wouldn't expect rug-cutting prowess to be common among my writerly peers, but, then again, I lack a posteriori knowledge in the matter. What I do know is that Chicago would make for a nice shake-up.

I adore Chicago. Oh, look. The brochure says accomodations are to be had at the Hilton Chicago, on Michigan Avenue, where I stayed on that last deleriously fun trip to the Windy City. It was an unremarkable room, a great view of downtown. Can you hear me sighing wistfully?

I'd love to phone up and register, to again visit my favorite US metropolis, to network with others whose passion is the written word, to eat pizza with a fork, to be wooed by agents wanting to broker my book deal, to stay out in the Loop impractiaclly late, to court editors from literary journals left and right, to ride the El around until my backside ached. Alas, someone at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs must have missed the memorandum — I have a previous engagement. Maybe next year I'll be able to think about it... even if it's not Chicago. Keep me on that list.

09 November, 2011

Impromptu Motivational Speaker

The new guy is older than me by about a decade. Burly, with big biceps bearing tattoos of a skull and the cheery message, "FUCK EM ALL," I've seen no reason to associate with him during the months he's lived in the wing, a few doors down from mine. He's even more of a hermit than I am, which I consider a kind of warning. In short, when he and I exited the visiting building tonight — just the two of us, alone on a dark and largely vacant yard — the last thing I expected was to get involved in a conversation.

It started like small talk, which I always handle awkwardly: "How you doin' tonight, Byron?" he asked, and I answered with my customary tone. Then came more questions, like he was trying to pull something out of me or override some nagging voice in his own head. Maybe both. By the time we reached our housing unit, I'd summarized for him my experiences in the court system, my good fortune at having extensive outside support, and my current efforts to extricate myself from this place. We — okay, I — covered a lot of ground without walking far at all. The whole time, he kept up his polite interrogation in that way of everyone for whom incarceration is a fresh torture, hoping to glean some nugget of wisdom from any source, as though they didn't already know how to cope: only by doing, only by living. I blathered on, ignorant of the question he'd probably been intending since that jarring introduction.

Then, as we were coming up the stairs to our walk, he asked it. "So, how do you keep from, you know, getting depressed?"

It was funny, so I smiled. As if I don't still have low days! As if all my nights of sleep are sound ones, during which I do not feel my heart sink! I smiled, then told him. I told him about the importance, above all, of finding purpose. I told him about the brilliance of the to-do list and the magic that is to be found in holding tightly to dreams for the future, no matter how trivial. I told him about the quiet virtue of the crossword puzzle, when all else fails. We had stopped, at his door, to lean on the railing as I monologued without pause, an impediment to foot traffic, for more than a quarter of an hour. By the end, I'd all but presented him a seminar on productive coping strategies. He excused himself to call his family and to ask them to order him books on origami and word puzzles, and said he was going to start working on a list of personal goals later this evening.

I don't know how long his sentence is, nor the circumstances of his crime. If he's a person with any follow-through whatsoever is not something to which I can attest. But I think I did a good thing, however unintentionally, in giving the new guy some ideas on how to use his time for something other than catching up on sleep. Maybe I will follow up with him, see how his goals list is coming along. Right now, I'm just amazed. Was I ever that hopelessly eager for an easing of the weight, or have I always been such an isolated stoic? And should I be worried that I can no longer conjure an answer to this question?

27 October, 2011

The Return of Halloween in the Hoosegow

Do you feel the chill? There's a faint burning scent on the breeze that sweeps from the north to nip through gaps in your coat. It is the approach of Halloween. I feel it in my marrow, the pull — a merciless desire against which I am powerless. For, on the night of the thirty-first, as the moon creeps up to bathe the world in her pallid light, I am compelled to submit to my ghastly craving... for a horror movie marathon and a one-and-a-half square-foot spread of deluxe nachos.

In accordance with the ancient ritual we set forth a couple of years ago, my hunchbacked companion, Zach (all right, so maybe he's just a little slouchy — it's called artistic license, people), and I consulted the fell grimoire that is the prison's canteen price list to begin, weeks in advance, planning and procuring all necessary elements for our diabolically calorific feeding frenzy. We thought early preparedness would ensure our homage to the nacho gods would be a worthy one. But no more are olives sold by the canteen, nor are illicit onions from the kitchen. Our aboveboard and underhanded supply chains failed us equally. Arguably worse, funds were in limited supply. Still, we amassed what we could: tortilla chips, beans, meat, cheese. Even these barest ingredients would cost us dear future comforts, but the All Hallows Eve ritual must take precedence. We would not be denied our celebration.

On the night of the fifth of October, our seasonal plans were set in motion early by the broadcast of the slick new FX Network supernatural soap opera, American Horror Story, signaling the slow creep onto TV of frightful fare. "And so it begins!" I said, a sinister mwah-ha-ha on my lips, as the show's herky-jerky opening credits ran. Oozing sexuality from its every scene, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink premiere episode was almost too much (and mildly annoying in its repeated somnambulistic exposure of Dylan McDermott's ass); though by the second week of the series my inner critic was pleased. Continued appearances by the redhead maid Moira, as Ben sees her, will assure my pruriently loyal viewership.

"You got a real thing for the girls with colored hair," said Zach, when we first discussed the show.

"No, just saucy old maids," I quipped, convincing absolutely no one.

On the sixteenth commenced the second season of AMC's zombie apocalypse drama, The Walking Dead, which inaugurated the network's "Fear Fest" programming schedule and fated Zach and me to spend the next fifteen days as braindead, hollow-eyed, sleepless trudgers. For we will wait up well later than the witching hour, fixated on our TVs, hungrily hoping for some classic horror films that probably won't even be shown.

Then, a holiday miracle: without notice, one benevolent soul out in the world of the living delivered our Octoberfeast from mere acceptability, by way of an infusion of funds to my inmate account. In the eleventh hour I was able to purchase the picante sauce, jalapeño peppers, and ranch dressing for which our ritual clamors — plus a bite of chocolate for a greedy little dessert. When Zach asked how I was able to afford proper garnish for our garish dish, I summoned my best Vincent Price imitation to mutter, "It came... from the world beyond!"

So shall our screen worship persist, night upon night, until its preordained climax, commemorated by the unholy mass (of smothered chips), on Halloween. Such is the way. The craving will not be assuaged but through our sacred rite. How else might we satiate ourselves, after all — with a glut of food on Thanksgiving? Please.

18 October, 2011

Deep-Sixing the Double Six to Keep the Peace

There's a war on, a war seemingly without end. It is a war between the prisoners in our wing who play dominoes and the prisoners who want some peace and quiet. It is a war fiercely waged, and sometimes there are casualties.

The dominoes players have their regular table, where they congregate for epic games of "bones." There they while away the afternoons and evenings. Connoted by "epic" is both that the games are lengthy and that they sound like audio re-enactments of the Trojan and Peloponnesian wars, complete with grunts, fearsome battle cries, and the clangor of colliding shields. The players' enthusiasm for the game is amply and often expressed. Not a day passes that they neglect their precious pastime.

It's not an enthusiasm shared by everyone, of course, as some of us wing residents are wet blankets and stodgy malcontents with the zany notion that, outside of dire situations, one shouldn't shout at another from anything less than a substantial distance (and then, preferably not indoors). We don't see much point in getting wound up; it's only a game. Besides, some of us are trying to use the phone... or hear ourselves think. The slamming and the shouting — are they really called for?

Non-players address the players' racket in one of two ways: (1) they let the players' volume reach a level that can only be described as unconscionable before screaming an even louder "Hey!" and glaring pointedly; or (2) they steal one of the dominoes from the box when no one's looking. The first method only rarely has any effect. In this community populated with so many violent criminals, the passive-aggressive approach seems to be the more frequent one. Either way, the players never equate cause with effect. The sounds of battle always resume as soon as the set of dominoes is again made whole.

So, as I was seated on my usual perch at the far end of the upper tier, reading a collection of short works by Kafka and appreciating a rare mid-afternoon placidity, I wasn't surprised to learn someone had once more made off with one of the little ivory-colored tiles.

"Hey, excuse me," the lanky man — one of the players who'd journeyed far in his search, if he'd come all the way to me — said. "You seen the Big Six domino? You know where it went?"

"I wouldn't have any idea," I told him, making the eye contact crucial to avoiding his dangerous suspicion. Most of us who disapprove of the players' rudeness favor a policy of non-confrontation, whereas they tend to go strongly in the opposite direction. I was in no mood just then to face off over someone's missing game piece. Even if I was, I wouldn't tell this person from a rival camp the fate of said trinket. "Someone probably threw it away," I said, adding hopefully, "or flushed it down their toilet."

My interlocutor scowled. I'm quiet and unobtrusive, yet also self-assured — a blank slate, a cypher, an X factor. He was sizing me up. Was I telling the truth, or did I know who'd sabotaged their fun? He finally shook his head, sufficiently convinced of my ignorance. "Man, some people!" he said, then turned away in resumption of his quest.

Maybe it will turn up, maybe it won't. My own selfish hopes lie on the latter. "Some people," indeed.

05 October, 2011

Some Writing Prompts Cribbed from the Letters of a Prolifically Unpublished Friend (Use at Your Own Risk)

  • Concept: the search for artistic proof that time is bipolar

  • Concept: the invention of a spell-check machine for dreams

  • Starting dialog:"Dude, I just broke my fucking guitar over some fucker's head! You gotta send me a new one."

  • Starting sentence: I know a girl who ends every sentence with "...and everything."

  • Concept: tortured life of godly obsession versus masturbation

  • Concept: a very nice guy who's never offended anyone

  • Concept: why laundromats make me horny

  • Title: A Catholic on the Hill Floats to Heaven on Bingo Wings

  • Starting sentence: Today the moat is calm, quiet. Colorless. Wet.

  • Exercise: review a nonexistent play, film, or concert

  • Concept: characters in novels aging with time — like the next time you read Huck Finn he's using a walker to hobble onto the raft, Tom and Becky long since gone

  • Concept: the trouble with milk

22 September, 2011

Writing Under Lock and Key

For the writer seeking refuge from distraction — a place to immerse himself in his craft — I would sooner recommend a crowded lunchtime deli counter, or a county fair's petting zoo, than prison. The idea that a stint in the slammer yields limitless opportunity to let thoughts flow freely from brain to page is so fallacious as to be ridiculous. Maybe in the solitary conditions of prisons past, where some of our great literary minds were jailed, this could have been otherwise. I envision Oscar Wilde in the dismal Reading Gaol, squinting at his quill marks in the darkness, his towering form hunched over the manuscript for De Profundus. Wilde almost certainly wrote nonstop, save to slurp watery spoonfuls from the bowls of slop slid under his door, and to use the chamber pot. Hardly an idyllic retreat, but in its way enviable — in that stone-walled stillness he obviously got some work done.

My imprisonment is less conducive to productivity. A deli counter could at least offer good food; a petting zoo, more civilized company. The noise is one matter — continual shouting, slammed dominoes, dueling radios. Noise has been endemic to prisons since time immemorial. But the personal intrusions are quite another. It's the price of being favorably known, I guess, to have other inmates stopping at my door throughout the day to ask, "What's up, you working on something there?"

Politeness is tough for me to maintain when I'm interrupted mid-thought, so I'm known to respond snippily: "Well, yes, I'm trying to."

With some visitors, I meet rudeness with rudeness. One odious little troll, a downstairs resident of my wing, has convinced my cellmate to save the butts of roll-your-own cigarettes for him. Sanitary concerns aside, most people would likely just drop the habit if they couldn't afford it. being of a different sort, however, Rumplestiltskin creeps his way up to our door sporadically, announcing his regrettable presence with a now-familiar potent stink of ashtray and unwashed hair. Each time he croaks, "I'm here to pick up Bertha Butt and the Butt sisters for our date!"

When swinging by my door, the odds of catching me seated at this desk, typing, editing, or reading, are better than nine in ten. Thus, the troll's arrival rarely fails to lop short whatever thought I happen to be working through. I wince at the pain of it every time. The old man then lingers like an egg fart, counting his newest haul of secondhand smokes, then initiates some religio-political conversation with my cellmate that I wouldn't want to hear even if it were intelligent and I had nothing else going on. My suspicion is that he arranged the ongoing butt deal just as a pretense for talking at my poor cellmate. Prior attempts at hinting Rumplestiltskin away have failed; the miniature stinkpot is oblivious. If his tiresome tirade doesn't exhaust him quickly and carry him out of my presence, I vent an exasperated hiss, hold my breath, and elbow past him through my obstructed doorway. Fleeing my own quarters until he skulks back into his dungeon is the nicest sensible alternative to losing my mind.

A cellmate incapable of keeping his interior monologue internalized; a hard-of-hearing cellmate whose headphones stay at such high volume as to obviate their use at all; a popular cellmate whose chatty pals are a continual, gabby presence — the possible types of live-in distractions are manifold. I've suffered them all, at one time or another. But noise isn't the only slayer of one's muse. If it were, my earplugs alone might let me plug away at this keyboard without pause. Life as a prisoner is often lived on someone else's clock: mealtimes are determined at random, by someone else; when we're required to report to other locations is similarly at someone else's discretion; and dropping everything to present ourselves for the numerous daily head counts is mandatory. Good luck fitting periods of complex introspection in edgewise.

I see ads for writers retreats all the time, in magazines like Poets & Writers and Writer's Digest, and daydream about committing wanton acts of prose in the privacy of a woodland clearing near a rented cabin, about the peace of isolated autumn weeks spent typing on a laptop by a still koi pond, or about sequestering myself in a spartan inner-city apartment with nothing but a month's supply of coffee and the beloved sounds of nearby traffic to sustain me as I compose whatever text my heart desires. Yes, I, who am supposed by others to have all the time in world to write, go moon-eyed when I think about places I could indulge in uninterrupted intellectual exercise.

Once the words are on paper, there are further blocks. While not outright banned, publication is hindered significantly by the policies of the Department of Corrections. I know a handful of prisoners who've published books — some with small presses, some with self-publishing outfits — and all but one (that I know of) have been subsequently issued conduct violations for "conducting business" or sued by the State under the Missouri Incarceration Reimbursement Act. A judgment in a MIRA suit places a permanent lien against the prisoner's account, so that ninety percent of all funds sent to him or her are seized, up to nearly $17,000 a year, irrespective of the funds' source. Keeping only ten cents of every dollar of your hard-earned royalties would be bad enough; keeping only that percentage of a gift from your kindly great-aunt Helen would merely add insult to injury.

It's not only book publication that could land an incarcerated author under the boot of MIRA or the yoke of disciplinary sanctions. Being paid for publication in a periodical also does the trick. Signing a contract, likewise. A writing career based exclusively on a few contributor copies, the occasional laudatory byline, and donated pieces is no less artistically respectable than one that yields a five-figure income, but how then to buy basic necessities — typewriter ribbon, stationary, and postage? Free-world writers may struggle financially, from time to time, but never like this.

And don't get me started on how MFA-centrism has restricted the field. The words I'd employ would be unpublishable.

In spite of the challenges, obviously, I manage to write. I also publish. It would be impossible not to; the words are in me. For any writer out there who wishes aloud for space and time enough to make your hobby your life, I have little sympathy. Writing is a discipline — sometimes a tremendously rewarding one — which means knuckling down, doing it, sacrificing "x, y, or z" to achieve your writerly ambitions. Nearly everyplace is unaccommodating and hectic. If you're serious about it, you'll find a quieter deli counter, or a petting zoo with fewer rowdier goats. Start searching now, don't expect an idyll, and try appreciate having options. Some of us have few, yet make do just the same.

12 September, 2011

My Toe as Produce

Never mind how it happened, what matters is that the fourth toe on my left foot — the one beside my minimus, or little toe — appears to have merged at the atomic level with the largest red grape known to mankind. Taut-skinned and the color of eggplant, rimmed furiously red, my toe is more than twice its natural size... and getting bigger. The pain is one matter, but what I truly fear is having to endure the prison's medical treatment for this poor, distended digit.

I hobble up the boulevard this afternoon to an uncertain fate.

The shoe comes off and a nurse covers her mouth, says, "Holy hematoma!" The doctor is called. Busybody nurses with more important tasks at hand nevertheless stop to ooh and aah at the sight. These medical professionals aren't reacting very professionally.

"Oh, my god, what did you do?" asks one.

"What is that?" asks another.

A nurse who appears to be in charge pushes them all aside and declares, "I've never seen one that big before!"

Flattery, my dear, I think, will get you nowhere.

Even the doctor, when he arrives, is alarmed. He opts to drain it. To the emergency room! (It's not what you expect, just a padded table surrounded by cabinets of gauze, a person-sized green tank of what I imagine is nitrous oxide, an articulated lamp, and other triage equipment to be used if the ambulance is undergoing too-lengthy a search procedure on the way into the prison.)

I lie down on the table, uncomfortable with not being able to see what's being done. Thankfully, I have not inherited my mother's squeamishness about my feet being touched. Still.

Eighteen-gauge needle. A brief fumbling. Squirt. A woman I can't see yelps an "Oh!" that makes me laugh. Then the draining, the squeeze. Normally the stoic, I involuntarily flinch.
"Sorry," says the doctor, but I'm the one making someone's job harder.
"No, that was my fault," I say. Unpleasant. Gritted teeth. A light sweat. The bandaging may be worse than the proceure itself.

I get crutches, ten days' worth of unnecessarily potent antibiotics. My gauze- and pad-swaddled foot will not fit back into my shoe, even though I wear a 9½ EEE. Having never before walked on crutches — not even for childhood sprains, bone-breaks, or instances of dramatic malingering — I feel ridiculous. Trying to hold my shoe and my medication while teetering around proves challenging. Under the very best of circumstances, I am fairly physically inept. Vaulting from the housing unit to the dining hall is going to be a pain, I can already tell.
On the walk back, guys I know are yelling good-natured jibes from the nearby yard. Someone runs to open a door for me, then another. Good of them.

I'm scarcely back in my cell, situating myself awkwardly at this desk, when company arrives. All of my acquaintances are checking up on me, eager to hear the gory details of my bloodletting. There are jokes about amputation, of course. I don't mind.

This could have been worse, in all. Like everyone, I've heard horror stories. But there remains the difficulty of taking a shower tonight with a mummy foot, followed by the harrowing returns to the infirmary for dressing changes. If I survive that long, there will be visits to enjoy this weekend; if I don't, someone out there, tell my mother that I love her. And for crying out loud, don't play any of that schmalzy organ music at the funeral — spring for a live band and have a little fun.

01 September, 2011

My Beef with Actor Peter Coyote

Ordinarily, when my writing is published in a periodical, I won't mention it here. This month's issue of The Sun, however, begs that I break the precedent. In June, the magazine featured an interview with Peter Coyote, in which he spoke his mind on such broad-ranging subjects as drug addiction, communal living, and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Coyote's opinions differ significantly from my own, I chose to write a letter quibbling with a minor point. The letter appears in the September issue:
I found your interview with actor and activist Peter Coyote to be one of the better ones of the past year. Just one thing troubled me. Coyote says, "All the kids I have met who look like punks have been, without exception, sweet people, but they are not hopeful. I think they are trying to keep a part of themselves sacrosanct from the culture by violating norms of fashion and behavior, making music that is so angry and unbeautiful." 

As one of those pierced and unconventionally dressed punks, I have a problem with his implication that anger and hope are mutually exclusive. I have many proudly iconoclastic friends whose anger about the state of the world only fuels their work for a better tomorrow. To quote old-school punk John Lydon, "Anger is an energy." I challenge Coyote to show us a revolution that wasn't based on people's frustration boiling over.
Coyote's response followed:
Byron Case is right in parsing what I wrote, but I didn't express myself very well. I don't think that anger and hope are mutually exclusive. I have found, however, that expressing anger rarely solves anything. It makes us feel powerful but also draws lines between people, subtly reinforcing one's own "correctness" at the expense of others. If we look deeply, we'll see that we possess the same noxious qualities and practices (expressed differently perhaps) that we target in others. By placing them outside ourselves, we make ourselves feel purer. My model is the Dalai Lama and not John Lydon. Hatred is an energy, too, but....
Without getting into my thoughts on Coyote's fuzzy-wuzzy "we are one" ideology too deeply, his original point about punks (a label I adopted as shorthand for someone who "violates" their culture's homogeneity; although, I do get a kick out of almost everything by the Dead Kennedys) seems to fly in the face of his printed rebuttal. In the former he denounces unpopular fashion, behavior, and music; in the latter he decries the practice of "drawing lines" between ourselves and others in order to feel superior. It's possible this apparent hypocrisy is simply a matter of not thinking his argument through, and I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But is he so credulous as to believe in a universal beauty? The only way in which all people are identical is that each of us is unique — everyone outside of one another. Unity is all about accepting each other's differences.

Our disagreement about anger seems to reside principally in matter of scope. Coyote referred to the microcosm that is interpersonal relationships — two players scuffling during a basketball game, a scorned lover slashing his ex's tires — whereas my opinion focused on more of a macrocosmic and constructively channeled anger — a voter referendum, the overthrow of a tyrannical dictator (viz., the recent rebellion in Libya). Because my model is neither the Dalai Lama nor John Lydon but George Carlin, I believe that context is key. Few would argue that barroom brawls and crimes of passion are the results of anger improperly expressed, which society would be better off without. My point was not that anger was some sort of universal good, merely that it was frequently a crucial ingredient in meaningful societal paradigm shifts.

23 August, 2011

On the Release of the West Memphis Three

"Are you sure?" I insisted. My neighbor Zach had just rushed to my cell door to relay what he'd seen on CNN. The West Memphis Three, jailed for eighteen years on dubious murder convictions, took an Alford plea and were being released. I abandoned the essay I was writing and hurriedly turned on my TV. Sure enough, there they were — Damien, Jessie, and Jason, dressed like human beings for the first time this century — giving a press conference.

"The one on the left looks a little like you," Zach said. I shushed him, not wanting to miss an instant. Though the networks would replay the clip for days, it never stopped appearing to me as surreal as a fever dream.

Zach had seen photos of me taken before prison. He knew about the media's fixation on my black clothes and eyeliner. He knew, also, that my friends and I used to talk about the West Memphis Three in the reverent tones typically used by the devout when speaking of martyrs. Onetime misfits in a small-minded trailer culture, the trio's persecution was as mythic as it was terrifying. If we teens who lived in an urban, allegedly enlightened environment (in the Midwest, I grant you) were yelled at and threatened on the street for dressing unusally, there was no doubt in our minds that black-clad youth in the American South had it many times worse. Of course we believed Damien, Jason, and Jessie were innocent. Arrest, trial, and conviction were simply legal extensions of the sort of bigotry my darkly dressed friends and I encountered all the time. It would have been difficult not to feel solidarity with those three strangers down in Arkansas, but I didn't hold much hope in their chances for release. Even as a naive teenager, my faith in the United States judicial system, and in people, was virtually nonexistent.

Then my two best friends died. Anastasia was murdered; Justin, her boyfriend, killed himself. Authorities suspected it was a murder-suicide. I knew the homicide investigation was going south when, in an interview, the lead investigator launched into the first of many inquiries into the couple's musical tastes, religious beliefs, and choice in clothing. One mutual friend suggested early on, "This case is going to turn into a witch hunt before it's closed."

And in a way, it did. I partly blame my wrongful murder conviction on the smear campaign that ensued. After my scorned ex took her lies to the authorities, years later, the jury was kept from hearing much of the sensational crap prosecutors wanted to introduce, but there was no shortage of effort on that front. Everything from my car's band-related bumper stickers to my offbeat sense of humor was dragged out, pre-trial. I even suggested during a recess that I detected disturbing echoes of the case of the West Memphis Three. My court-appointed attorney blinked at me from behind his thick glasses and asked, "Who?" He later obliged my worry after a great deal of cringe-worthy debate over the use at trial of the term goth, and I was at least granted a trial free of overt post-West Memphis Three, post-Columbine bias.

So there I sat, innocent yet imprisoned, watching footage of those I once pitied for unjustly living the slow death of the incarcerated. Cellphone snapshots of Damien and Jason's luxurious first night of freedom — Kobe burgers and a five-star hotel rooftop celebration — and of Jessie's family reunion swelled my heart as they stabbed it.

"Man," Zach said as we watched, "can you imagine?"

A happy photograph of Damien holding his wife, whom he married years ago, in prison, flashed across the screen. Before that day, they had scarcely before touched. I just stared. What an experience that all must be, scary and awesome and bigger than anything most people will probably ever know.

I finally mustered a reply: "Actually, I imagine it every single day."

18 August, 2011

The Pig

My father brought her home without warning one afternoon, to the shock of my mother. I remember being in the back seat of her brown Volkswagen Fox when we pulled into our suburban driveway, and hearing Mum mutter something under her breath. Then I saw her, standing beside my father, close to our back door, all naked and freckled and innocently smiling: the pig.

"She can live around the compost heap," my father explained. "I'll build a fence and we can just let her wallow around back there. She'll be happy."

We had a good-sized compost pile behind the garage — probably six feet by nine — into which we cast organic waste: watermelon rinds, coffee grounds, moldy bread. This stuff, any pig should be more than pleased to loll around in. No mention was made of city ordinances or what, in fact, had possessed my father to purchase for us a pink porcine pal. She was there, and that was all there was to it — at least to my naive seven-year-old mind.

True to his word, my father erected a long-overdue white picket fence on the site of our stinky waste pen, complete with a little gate. Behind the garage, the pig was shielded from our neighbors' view. Since she was such a silent swine, there was none of the oinking one would think (as my parents did) would alert passersby to the pig's almost certainly illegal presence.

Not that there were many passersby in our neighborhood. We didn't even have a sidewalk on our particular stretch of street. Pedestrians, on the rare occasions they appeared, were usually mail carriers or meter readers. Even though an elementary school lay right behind our backyard fence, school-age kids were virtually nonexistent. The only ones to be found lived around the corner — two rough-and-tumble boys who wore faded Aerosmith T-shirts and sported too-frequent black eyes. Not my cup of tea. I had a pig at home, thank you.

And it was always just "the pig." We never did give her a name. This should have been odd to me, given my predilection for naming every animal I came in contact with. Even my pet hermit crabs had names, taken from the Greek mythology, with which I was obsessed — Hercules and Sisyphus — and they were barely sentient. So why not also the pig? It couldn't have been that my parents had warned me against getting attached, because that would have immediately struck me as wrong. Perhaps I had a nascent, unconscious sense of what was going on, why we really kept a nameless pig.

It is a Kansas City tradition to organize a huge, festive parade downtown, on Saint Patrick's Day. That year, my parents, who owned and operated a chimney services company, entered us. The us in this instance included the pig. My parents donned the traditional top hats and tails they actually wore out on jobs, and I wore my pint-sized version of same, with a theatrical smear of soot on my cheek. The pig got a little green derby hat and green sequined collar, both adorned with shamrocks. As if the outfits weren't enough, my father rigged my Radio Flyer wagon with faux brick,  to look like a chimney on wheels. My parents took turns pulling this  ad hoc float in the parade while I crouched inside, popping up at intervals of every block or so, waving jauntily. The pig had it easier; all she had to do was smile and trot alongside the family on her thin green rope leash.

After meals, from time to time, I took a plate of leftovers behind the garage. The pig always seemed happy to see me, rushing over to the fence to wedge her moist snout between the fence pickets. For an animal reviled by many cultures for its uncleanliness, she stayed surprisingly spot-free. If we hadn't kept her in what amounted to a mud pit, even her trotters would've probably been pink. A meticulous, tidy child, I was impressed by this dignity. I found myself warming to her.

Then one morning, after my father had left for what I assumed was work, I went out to feed the pig the remnants of a cantaloupe I'd eaten for breakfast. I'd started spending time with her on these trips, talking quietly to her and scratching behind her floppy, fuzzy ears until she closed her eyes and made grunts like a series of relaxed sighs. But she was gone, her pen empty.

"We had to get rid of her," my mother told me when I ran into the house. My shock, I admit, had less to do with concern for the pig's well-being than with the astonished notion that she'd somehow managed to undo the gate latch, step out of her pen, and replace the bolt in her escape. I knew pigs were intelligent, but for a moment I worried we were dealing with Houdini on the Hoof.

Nothing much was said of the pig for the next couple of days. I was content staying silent on the whole thing, and my parents left no doubt they did not wish to discuss it. Eventually, though, the secret came out as all my family's revelations seemed to: over breakfast. I had the temerity to ask why the bacon that morning had come out of white paper wrapping, rather than the vacuum-sealed clear plastic I was used to.

"Well...," my mother began. Then my father took over.

"It's the pig," he said matter-of-factly. "This bacon came from the pig. We took her to the butcher the other day. This is just some of the good food the pig gave us."

While you, dear reader, probably saw this coming from a mile away, I was blind-sided. True, the pig and I never had the chance to get too attached. Ours were very different worlds, after all — hers, a squalid pen full of loam and old banana peels; mine, a spruce roomful of books and toys — yet the shock of eating the flesh of a creature who, days before, I'd been patting on the head and feeding old eggs was substantial. My eyes burned and my jaw tingled as I placed my strip of bacon back on the plate and stared at it. A minute earlier it had smelled and looked so good. But now....

The same thing happened when I learned, at four years old, what eggs really were. I knew they came from chickens, who laid them into fluffy straw nests and brooded over them with great care. I also knew that chickens hatched from eggs. Somehow, however, I never put Fact A and Fact B together until finding a smear of blood in one of my otherwise perfect, runny yolks as I dragged a buttery wedge of toast through them. For months thereafter I couldn't so much as look at an egg without gagging: unfertilized chicken ova! A sensitive boy, you might call me, but I got over that aversion with time. Sunny-side-up eggs are a hard habit to shake.

So too was it with the pig. A few weeks of childhood vegetarianism passed, resisting her greasy aromatics as they wafted daily around our table. Then my righteous indignation caved to my taste buds. The pig lived a good life, I reminded myself, and it was not without grateful joy that we would cut into her juicy chops, the flavorful roast, and savory sausages. One bite was all it took for me to rescind the prior remarks about my parents' savage ways. They were mine, too, in the end. Vegetarians, I decided, were missing out on a truly good thing.

02 August, 2011

This Blog Is Not a Pen-Pal Ad... Now Quit Asking!

Not a full year goes by without someone in authority, here at the prison, finding or intercepting some piece of paper that makes them think they've caught me red-handed in the subversive act of writing a blog. Each time this happens, I'm called into someone's office, passed a printout of some Pariah's Syntax posts, and accusingly asked, "What can you tell me about this?" Repeating that I am exercising my First Amendment right to write gets old.

Last week, the Crossroads Correctional Center mail room opened an envelope containing some poems I submitted to a literary journal. I've sent out submissions exactly like this for years. The cover letter that accompanied these poems, as does every cover letter I've ever sent with a manuscript,, mentioned this blog alongside the highlights of my publishing history. Never mind that I've received a hard copy through the mail of every Pariah's Syntax post ever written, or that I've been mailing out typewritten originals of them to be transcribed for four years now — suddenly the mail room staff is suspicious. My poetry submission was forwarded to the censorship committee to determine if this blog violates policy. Had anyone checked my file, they might've been saved the trouble.

The origin of this nonsense goes back to the summer of 2007, when the State of Missouri lost lawsuits against a number of women prisoners. The State had claimed these women were conducting business (which is against the law for prisoners in many states) by receiving money from male pen pals in exchange for photos and the occasional sexy letter. That the court ruled in the women's favor should be no surprise. If getting gifts from a paramour were deemed illegal, everyone currently in a relationship would have to line up for his or her day in court.

The State, however, got to flout the court's ruling by employing a tidy workaround. Then-Governor Matt Blunt (he of the R-rated movie ban) issued one of his infamous executive orders, this time prohibiting state prisoners from soliciting pen pals, particularly online. The logic of this was presumably that prisoners, having little or no opportunity to meet new friends on the outside, would no longer be able to so easily seek out "victims" (people) to "take advantage of" (correspond with). Blunt's order put Department of Corrections administrators on high alert for anything that could be liberally construed as a pen-pal ad. This included web pages and sites that existed to raise public awareness of prisoners' legal struggles.

I came under scrutiny when the Crossroads administration learned about the Free Byron Case site maintained by my friends and family. For several days, as the site was reviewed by the powers that be, the threat of a conduct violation loomed over my head. Ultimately, I was cleared of any wrongdoing and foolishly told to avoid any direct involvement with running that site — as if I could just use a computer in my cell to log into the host's FTP site and start posting updates. Granted, I did have a MySpace profile back then; The Pitch's Peter Rugg wrote an insipid little puff piece about it. Shortly thereafter, for kind-of-but-not-really going counter to a policy that didn't technically exist, I was issued a conduct violation and kicked out of Crossroads's Good Conduct Wing. It was not the first time I'd been found guilty under shaky accusations.
Blunt's executive order had been a stopgap measure. Departmental policy was soon officially amended to include a prohibition against placing ads for pen pals, even though identical attempts in other states have been challenged and ruled unconstitutional by those states' Supreme Courts. But who knows, the Supreme Court of Missouri may interpret the Constitution differently. This state has achieved wide renown for its backwardness.

In January of 2008, DOC's Constituent Services Representative sent me a letter that said posting my writings to the web would not violate Departmental policy, provided I do not try to solicit pen pals in the process. You would think official correspondence on the Department's letterhead — a copy of which remains in my file — would settle the issue. I certainly did, otherwise I wouldn't have sought approval. This latest inquisition, prompted by the "discovery" from my cover letter that my writing has an online presence, proves that the prison's bureaucracy lacks anything like a collective memory. It also speaks to the open hostility toward the idea that its captives' voices might slip beyond these walls and be heard.

01 August, 2011

Faded Finery and Frankenfeet: Entropy's Effects on the Prisoner's Wardrobe

When you first "come down" — that is, when you enter into the custody of the Missouri Department of Corrections — you're issued three pairs of elastic-waist gray pants, three short-sleeved gray shirts, three white tees, four pairs of whitish socks, five pairs of white boxers, a pair of black brogans, a brown coat, and a fluorescent orange stocking cap. The pants used to have fancy accoutrements like pockets and zipper flies; the gray shirts used to button up and have handy breast pockets; the hats used to be a muted blue. The issue used to be larger, too, including more clothes and a belt. If you wanted more — anything colorful or warm or, I don't know, hip — you had to mail order it through a catalog. Lots of inmates used to do so.

Then came Missouri Vocational Enterprises. MVE uses prisoner labor, paid substantially below minimum wage, to manufacture all kinds of important things for the Department, from cleaning supplies and toilet paper to office furniture and, yes, clothing. When the DOC awarded MVE the contract to be the exclusive provider of clothing to its canteens, inmates were suddenly barred from ordering personal hoodies, socks, jogging shorts, and so forth from any outside vendor. The era of Dickies, Nike, and Hanes came to an end. MVE, with their cheap material and weak stitching, has since been the only show in town. Where its profits go is a closely guarded secret, as is how the enterprise evades federal wage laws.

The old personal clothing was grandfathered, so no one's FUBU or Kansas City Chiefs gear got confiscated, but it has been many years since MVE got that lucrative contract. Not even well-made clothes hold together forever. So you see them all over the prison: tattered Jordan tees, once-red football jerseys gone high pink, puffy coats disgorging white tufts of fill at the elbows. The wearers are as proud of these rags as could be, even though some cling by only a few threads to their bodies. They strut around the yard, cocks of the walk, just pleased to be wearing something that isn't state-issued gray — a touch of individuality, even at the cost of looking like a hobo.

I arrived here before the MVE monopoly, and could have been one of the guys boasting a colorful wardrobe. I wasn't planning on being imprisoned long, though; getting comfortable was the last thing on my mind. Anyway, I like battleship gray. Then, in autumn of 2003, I broke down and ordered a charcoal-colored sweatshirt through the mail. Winters here get blustery. That sweatshirt was stolen a few months later, which I chose to regard as an object lesson in the ultimate pointlessness of acquisition (Fight Club's Tyler Durden would be proud). I did not replace it. I did, however, later buy an MVE fleece jacket that, at seventeen bucks, is hardly an extravagance. Everything else I wear is still state-issued — why spend money on more than what I need? Besides, the available clothing is nothing like what I wore before prison. Wearing tank tops or shorts now would make me less comfortable, not more.

But even I am guilty of going to the preservationist extremes my fellow prisoners employ, where certain items are concerned. One of my thick rubber shower shoes snapped off my foot mid-stride last week, en route back to my cell with a damp towel over my shoulder. I broke into a limp, sliding the broken left sandal along the walk as efficiently as I could, avoiding flesh-to-concrete contact like a practiced germophobe. Then there was a choice to be made. Either I could replace them with a pair of the flimsy new foam-and-rubber flip-flops sold now on the canteen, or I could sacrifice a perfectly serviceable needle and a length of thread from my sewing kit to stitch together my outmoded, cloven footwear.

The needle bent and blunted. I stabbed a finger bloodily. When the job was done, erratic black stitching zigzagged the shoe's top like the handiwork of a drunken frontier surgeon. But it held, so I've still got my shower shoes. I suppose such efforts are no different from someone else awkwardly patching a holey shirt he's had since 1994, even if that shirt's little more than a collar with a meager web of fiber that links tenuously to sleeves. We cling to what we can.

05 July, 2011

Old-Man Candy

My computer desk had a lot of stuff on it that wasn't computer-related. It had to, considering how much time I spent sitting at it. Within easy reach of my geek throne were silver gel pens, black Post-Its (yeah, yeah; I know), a couple of brands of overpriced cigarettes, a clip of bills to pay, and two very specific containers of edibles: a can of honey-roasted cashews and a glass jar full of Werther's Originals candies. The smoking had been an awful habit, but I'll never apologize for my bag-a-week addiction to Werther's.

Some weeks ago, I was waiting in line at the prison canteen when the big wall-mounted monitor displayed on its "New Items" PowerPoint slide, "WERTHER'S ORIGINAL CANDIES — $1.78." A buzz went around.

"What are those?" someone asked.

"Damn, they sure want enough for them," said someone else.

And indeed, for someone whose allowance is the monthly $8.50 stipend from the state (through which we get all hygiene products that aren't toilet paper or hotel-size bars of waxy soap), a bag of buttery-delicious hard candy is beyond reach. I felt a tingle on my tongue, as though my body, impelled by nostalgia, was telling me, Ah, go on. You don't need soap, anyway.

Ages ago, a friend was watching online video clips at my apartment, seated in what I called the Sidekick Chair, when I offered her one of my precious gold-wrapped treasures.

"Oh, my god," she laughed, practically falling out of her chair. "You are such an old man!"

I was twenty-one. "What's that supposed to mean?" I asked. "I'm not even a year older than you."

"Werther's? They're, like, what your grandpa gives you when he comes over — 'Here, I brought you some sweets' — then he hands you one of those covered in pocket lint and hair and stuff. They're old-man candy, like licorice, horehound, or —" Her thought got lost in guffaws.

I have been known to offer pocket-borne Werther's, sans hair or lint. If that makes  me an old man, I thought, just call me Gramps. I loved Werther's. Rich, smooth sweet — I loved them.

Thinking back to my friends' derision as I waited in line, I did not forgo the soap. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must tell you that I've since questioned my decision, bu you make your choices and you live with them.

30 June, 2011

Painter Brad Greenwell Donates Artwork to Help the Free Byron Case Campaign

My tremendous thanks go to Brad Greenwell for his contribution of a fabulous framed oil-on-wood work, the sale of which will go towards legal fees as I fight my wrongful conviction. Brad also signed the petition in support of my pardon by Missouri's Governor Nixon, thus joining punk-art legend Winston Smith and the sublime pop-surrealist Henry Lewis in generosity to the cause.


The Reconciliation, 2007, Brad Greenwell

Inquiries about contributing to the cause by purchasing this work may be made via the e-mail link at FreeByronCase.com.

21 June, 2011

Confessions of a Word Nerd

I was born this way. Not an hour out of the womb, my parents told me, I babbled and burbled a proto-linguistic stream — there was no crying, just that innocent, excited exploration of verbosity. After months in utero and mute, I was too thrilled about the feel of random phonemes on my lips to get upset about my new, weirdly spacious accommodations.

The first German word I learned from my Würzburg-born mother was Hubschrauber — helicopter. Flattening my three-year-old tongue and curling my mouth to get those three munchy syllables out pleased me to no end. Letting the word fly from me felt like an accomplishment, so I repeated it over and over. The meaning was secondary to the sensory experience of forming it.

Today, of course, I write. And as any writer will, I hold dear a select few words. Because I like to think I'm grown up, usually it's because of their mere usefulness. (I am forever impressed with the myriad applications that exist in life for apropos and utter, and will be the first to acknowledge my own overuse thereof.) Then, though, there is that other class of words — the one which I am less beholden than infatuated by. Like comely mannequins in a window display, who catch your eye without even being alive, these words' aesthetic perfection, effervescence on my palate, or the flawless singing in my sensitive ear draws me in. I'd buy whatever they were selling.

Except these words, like mannequins, are incapable of loving me back. I can't enjoy a night on the town with the lovely aubergene — where in this country might I take her that would be sufficiently upscale? I cannot broach meaningful conversation with crepuscular, whose chilly affect stills almost any dinner table, gorgeous though she is. It's almost impossible to sit in repose with nepenthes on the sofa; certain relationships just feel forced. And although I fooled around with handsome vermilion in my teens, the attraction being undeniable as it was socially unacceptable, that's now little more than a fondly remembered stage, almost quaint, like my puppy love, Hubschrauber.

I keep my exotic unrequited loves in mind; I fantasize about them while I'm spending time with plainer prose. Sometimes I stray — an errant poetic affair here and there — and luxuriate in sibilant bliss with, say, adscititious. I mean, I'm only human and need a thrill now and again. Too bad I've got to sneak around to do it — that's all I'm saying. My beauties deserve better than to be treated like fetish objects, hidden away. Maybe I'll live to see a day when, instead of just talking about my complex feelings for melisma and metonymy, I can actually bring them to social gatherings without attracting all that jealous condemnation. A guy can dream, can't he?

11 June, 2011

A Travesty at Ten

My friend Anastasia was eighteen and ridiculously in love when the gun was brought up to her face and fired. She was weeks away into her first year at college, and dreaming of marrying her boyfriend, Justin. The shock of her ugly death was exceeded only by news, agonizing days later, that twenty-year-old Justin had shot himself in the head before investigators even learned Anastasia's name. There followed turmoil, and grief for both of them that words could never express.

But you know this story, don't you? Hell, you may have even read the book. So you know what came next: that in a sense my own life ended three and a half years later, when I was arrested, charged, tried, and found guilty of Stasia's murder — even though I had nothing to do with the crime. The epigraph on my metaphorical tombstone reads


Today I'm ten years gone.

Consider your own life a decade ago — where you were, what your days were like, how young you were. Consider the distance between then and now. Imagine next that it had all stopped then; imagine your past self exiled to a limbo where little changed and you experienced the passage of time only through the betrayals of your own body and the aging of those who graced your purgatory with their occasional (if transcendent) presence. Who might you have become in such a place? What thoughts there might've consumed you? At what point do you suspect you'd have collapsed under the weight of it all, a snap rending in two your bitter little heart? When, in other words, would you have broken?

Ten years gone. Three thousand six hundred and fifty-two days spent in the shadow of oppression, denied rudimentary comforts, and tortured by the threat that it will go on and on and on, to the end of me. Not one of these days has passed without my thinking, This has to end. Something must make it right. I am obsessed with the idea that truth and justice will eventually be done, never mind the universe full of evidence to the contrary.

With so much time passed since the awful events that set the stage for this miscarriage, I often have to force myself to remember the long, rusted chain of causality that brought me here. It would be easy to forget that my circumstances are entwined with that twin tragedy of half a lifetime ago — that I am sharing my friends' fate; that a lie is bound us beyond the grave, cruelly.

I vividly remember a dream I had around Day Two Thousand. I was in an empty old warehouse. Gaps between boarded windows let dust motes swim listlessly in streams of light from a setting sun, and I was calmly searching for an exit. Battered wood floors creaked under every footfall. Turning a corner, I happened on Justin and Stasia. They were standing in front of a towering window, peeking out at the world. They looked exactly as they had in life. By dream logic, I instinctively knew that they'd never actually died but come instead to that place to be together and young forever. I choked. Years upon years of sadness from their disappearance suddenly meant nothing, which was itself a kind of loss to mourn. I wanted to rush to hug them but was afraid. Would touching them destroy whatever allowed us to share that space, like trying to capture a soap bubble in dry hands?

"I've missed you," I told them, my face burning with emotions. "So much bad shit has happened since you left."

They looked at me strangely; though, not unkindly. They both spoke. "Who are you?"

"What?" The rejection was a sting. "It's me — Byron."

"You're not Byron," laughed Stasia. In the murk of our weird meeting place, her teeth shone.

Smirking in the way I'd almost forgotten he did, Justin adjusted his wire-frame glasses. "Yeah," he said, "Byron would never dress like that. Plus, I think he was taller."

"No, guys, it's really me. Don't you remember?"

They didn't. I tried desperately to convince them of who I was — that I needed them to come away with me, back to the outside world, to straighten everything out. Proof they were alive would save me from lingering death. Except they thought it was all a joke and laughed away my earnest pleas. The harder I pressed, the less they believed me. I awoke on my upper bunk in a dark cell and hugged my chest until morning, feeling as if my heart were a fractured vacuum tube about to implode.

Everyone has a limit on what they can bear. The trick is rebounding from collapse with a sense of purpose. I like to think I keep purpose foremost on my mind. Every day I wake up dreaming of the end. Every day I wonder how I might bring it about. Every day I focus on freedom. Every day I imagine a future in which every damned day doesn't begin and end locked inside a concrete box. I'm not even angry anymore at my ex, Kelly, the pathetic character whose lies put me here —Aesop taught us we can't begrudge the scorpion for stinging — I just want back what was stolen. I just want the bad dream to be over. I just want to live.

05 June, 2011

Books for the Incarcerated

I recently found a listing for the Prison Library Project, which provides books of all genres to prisoners around the US. Prison libraries are notoriously understocked, so the generosity of the community nonprofit that runs the Project, the Claremont Forum, is a wonderful thing. Earlier this week, the Prison Library Project surprised me with a couple of books of literary fiction that will undoubtedly be shared with some fellow readers here as soon as I'm through with them.

I urge any reader and literacy advocates to click the above link to the Project's homepage and make a donation — a book, a box of books, or something. They've done right by me, and I'd like to see that their thoughtfulness can be extended to others, too.

31 May, 2011

The Kids Give Gutter Ball a Whole New Meaning

One temperate evening in late spring of my seventeenth year, I sat smoking with my friends Brahm and Tara on Paul's quaint concrete front porch. The house was small, a remnant of an era when that part of the city was still suburbs. Even Paul, oldest among us, couldn't have known a time when traffic noise and sirens did not reach his rented home. Around the city's haze, darkness was creeping into crevasses, and we were idly contemplating a plan of action, in the way of many Midwestern American youth, when I noticed a wheelbarrow on the neighbor's curb — a wheelbarrow full of bowling balls.

The narrow street's residents had set their trash out for morning pickup, but Paul's neighbors obviously expected a bit more than the usual performance out of their sanitation engineers. Nine bowling balls! Of all the things to throw away. And what a way to get them to the street: in a perfectly serviceable garden implement. As with much curbside trash, the juxtaposition was humorous while also being baffling.

Nine bowling balls... in a wheelbarrow.

Brahm asked the sanest question. "What garbage man's going to expend the time and effort to lift a bunch of heavy balls into his truck?"

"It's not a bunch," I said. "Bananas come in bunches; bowling balls, plural — that's called a passel."

Unsmiling, Tara took a drag from her Camel, flipped her hair and deadpanned, "Oh, yes. Funny."

My humor is of a singular brand, but Brahm was right. No two men, however hale and fit, were going to take away the balls, by either picking them up one at a time or by heave-hoing the entire wheelbarrow. Our pal Paul's neighbors were asking too much.

"Someone could still use these," said Tara upon inspecting the mound. The balls were of all different colors and weights, some in solid colors, some with eccentric swirly patterns. Two were flecked metallic, like Hot Wheels toy cars. Only one appeared damaged, with a big sidelong split in its pearly shell. "I guess they just didn't feel like playing anymore."

"I wouldn't mind a game," I said, looking up and down the street. "Too bad they didn't throw away a set of pins — we could play right here."

Sometimes when you're with friends and someone has a fantastic idea, the way the idea surfaces seems, when reflected upon later, to have been born of the combined consciousness — groupthink. This was the case at that moment, standing under a buzzing yellow streetlight with two of my best friends, when we decided to go street bowling.

A surprisingly large percentage of homeowners are funny about others making off with their trash. Having dumpster-dived and scavenged a good deal in my limited years, I had learned how some people's paranoia could turn innocent salvage operations into scary dressings-down ("Get outta there, you parasites!") or worse. So we asked for, and received, Paul's okay to load the spherical contents of his neighbors' wheelbarrow into the trunk of my busted-up Pontiac and head for the hills.

We figured the best pins available would be empty bottles, and that the best place to turn into our personal alley would be an out-of-the-way stretch of road where some broken glass wouldn't make a whole lot of difference to anyone. Step one was easy and could also technically be considered neighborhood beautification. Anywhere with liquor stores, pawn shops, and mobile phone depots will do for finding a slew of discarded bottles. By picking them up, we'd be doing a public service. Conveniently enough, a sketchy midtown strip wasn't far away.

We drove slowly, in the far-right lane, eyes peeled for cast-off forty-ouncers glinting in the grassy median. Each time we stopped at the curb to retrieve some, my friends leapt out, laughing at the silliness of what we were doing then dropping another stinky armful into the trunk to acquaint itself with the balls. Reports from the back seat each time were that more bottles had been crushed; we hadn't even thought about keeping the balls from rolling around freely.

"Your trunk is full of glass dust," Tara told me with a smirk.

For fun, and to emphasize how little I cared about the state of my battered wreck's little-used stowage compartment, I gave the steering wheel a slight tug. Behind us was heard a muffled thunk, ka-thunk! We all giggled like schoolchildren.

We ended up on Cliff Drive, a twisty-turny route in woodsy northeast Kansas City that, in spite of being officially historical, was pretty shabby. Pull-offs had, in some distant era, offered motorists fine cliffside views of a wealthy part of the city, but were now litter-strewn, overgrown, and under-trafficked — in other words, perfect.

I pulled in at one of these ill-lit roadside crescents, crushed glass from parties of yore crackling beneath my tires. A six-inch retaining wall on the cliffside wouldn't have prevented incautious drivers from rolling right off, free-falling through trees and a dense overgrowth of vines, into a carpeting of litter — empty bottles, plastic cups, cigarette packs, and who-knows-what-all — thirty feet below. The lack of guardrails or wire evidenced the location's bygone relevance. It had been all but abandoned by the city. I cut the engine and popped the trunk, announcing, "Welcome to Cliff Drive Lanes, people!"

Brahm and I agreed to let the lady bowl first. We crouched to set up a triangle of ten bottles away from the road, near the retaining wall, while Tara picked a blue ball from the trunk. She put the road between us and rubbed her hands vigorously, preparing for action. (Some distance from the pins was necessary to approximate actual bowling; we were determined to preserve a little authenticity.) As soon as we were clear of the estimated glass shrapnel radius, she let fly. The ball rumbled past me and Brahm like a blur — the girl had a good arm — smashed through seven of our makeshift pins, bounced with a hollow pok! off some hitherto unseen ripple in the asphalt, and disappeared into the blackness without a sound.

"Damn," Tara said. "Did it go over?"

Brahm shot to the edge, his long hair flying, and peered down over the low wall. Whatever he expected to see wasn't there. "Oh yeah," he chortled. "It's gone."

"Should that be a penalty?" I wondered aloud.

"Hey, way to make up rules as you go along," said Tara, genuinely upset. "I should get a pass if we're playing that way."

"No rules, just play," Brahm said. He stooped into my trunk and chose a ball. Tara and I crowded him as we retrieved replacements for the obliterated "pins." When he took a long-legged running start, I knew my mischievous friend intended to send his ball the way Tara's had gone. This was understandable. There's something kind of funny about launching a sixteen-pound composite-plastic piece of sports equipment off a cliff. When only three pins shattered, Brahm didn't mind. He was too preoccupied by the pok! that sent his brown orb into oblivion. "That was great," he said. Of course Tara and I agreed.

Not all our balls went over. Our fun wouldn't have lasted very long if they had. Street bowling quickly became a sport of some finesse as we worked to find the sweet spot — that ideal inertia for breaking as many pins as possible without sending the balls down to a wooded grave. Recovering the ones just bowled became an even bigger challenge than bowling itself, because the road's incline often sent them caroming to the right. We laughed to watch whoever was on fetching duty scuttle downhill after a runaway. The posture required was a through-the-legs-backwards catch that stripped the fetcher, hilariously, of any possible dignity. All this was worth the road grime and pulverized glass that clung to our palms.

When the last ball, already cracked almost in two before I bowled it, rolled erratically away from me, completely missing the final remaining pins, and, with a grrrr, pok! vanished, the three of us brushed our hands on our clothes.

"Hey, I sparkle," exclaimed Tara, grinning and holding her tiny palms up to the light. We all looked. They glimmered like fairy dust.

25 May, 2011

Spring Showers

From outside, when clouds have rolled in and a light rain has dappled the ground, the tall windows of these cells always look as though they've been crying. There's enough misery on the faces of the inmates here without my projecting it onto inanimate objects, though.

14 May, 2011

So Let It Be Written

Months later than planned, the 312-page manuscript for my memoir is finally complete. Followers of The Pariah's Syntax will be glad to know my recent stretches of inactivity, blog-wise, should be a thing of the past. The book really did take all of my time, save for the month-and-a-half stretch when my typewriter was in the shop. Friends who've barely heard a peep out of me these past nine months can attest to this. I hope, when they read what I've written, they'll understand and forgive.

In some ways, I needed to write an account of my life. There was a profound yearning in me to reconcile the different epochs (which I guess I'll have to start calling chapters) that predated the now. I suspect that most people are like me in this way, breaking their personal histories down into manageable segments, each with its own self-contained narrative. Interconnecting these as one cohesive arc takes a good memory and no small amount of commitment. Making that account interesting takes storytelling ability. I hope I've succeeded on both counts.

Introspection was another factor driving me to write this book. Know yourself — it's harder than it sounds. I thought I knew myself well enough, but it's one thing to understand underlying motivations and driving needs, quite another to be shown another layer below even those. The rabbit hole goes deep. When I learned, three and a half years ago, that I have an autistic spectrum disorder (the neurological condition Asperger's syndrome) it was a revelation. Before that, I'd been aware and accepting of who I was; now I keenly understand why I am that way. This awareness cast everything in a new light — from my beginnings as a "gifted" child prodigy who ate paper, through a troubled adolescence of cocaine addiction and confinement in a mental facility, to an awkward adulthood on the fringe. It's the exploration of this newly illuminated history, and present day, that my book follows.

Who knows, maybe someone else with the condition will read it someday and benefit from my mistakes. Or the parent of an Aspergian teen. Or a clinician who studies Asperger's syndrome. Or a person who's married to someone on the spectrum. There's a whole world out there. If this memoir makes a difference in the lives of just two people, I will feel rewarded. I'll count myself as the first.

As my journey down the road to publication progresses, I'll share the news here. For now, though, I'm taking a breather, gathering my thoughts, and catching up on some reading. That stack of magazines and books isn't getting any smaller.

11 April, 2011

Show Your Support with a Click

Readers who follow the news on FreeByronCase.com have known for several months that my petition for relief from the US Supreme Court was denied without hearing. Although dispiriting, it wasn't much of a surprise. Only one of every hundred petitions is even looked at by the justices, the rest are rubber-stamped by clerks. The Court's denial was not necessarily based on the merits of my arguments; I likely just didn't have the lucky number. Most people would be appalled to know how closely justice in the United States resembles a coin toss, a game of roulette, or, sometimes, Powerball.

The big question has since been the obvious one: What now? A couple of options remain for me, in the pursuit of my stolen freedom, and while I have plans for them both, I cannot bring them to fruition without help.

The option I can tell you about right now is executive clemency. Clemency is a discretionary act by a state's governor, invoked, among many other possible reasons, to provide relief in cases of innocence or dubious guilt, when all other remedies have been exhausted. One of the forms that clemency can take is a pardon, which not only wipes out a conviction but restores voting rights, the right to run for public office, and the right to serve on a jury. There is no court involvement in the clemency process — the state's parole department advises on the matter, then it is entirely the governor's decision.

My supporters have begun collecting signatures in an online petition that asks Governor Jay Nixon to grant me a full pardon. Your signature to the petition, indicating a belief that my convictions for murder and armed criminal action are (at best) unjust or (at worst) egregious sins, could mean the difference between my freedom and a life wasted behind a lethal electric fence. Please visit The Petition Site. Tell Missouri's Governor Nixon that, based on the evidence of my innocence, you support my application for pardon. Then share the petition's URL with someone you know. The courts may have failed, but the people can still prevail.

10 April, 2011

A Winter Poem for Spring's Springing

Siberian Exile

Observe: life aplenty, but nothing living
Nor beautiful. For beauty is unsatisfying,
Too fickle, too fleeting, and we speak
Only in absolutes, in basso voce, in taunts,
In outright lies; never may one permit his
Wrack-and-ruin teeth to chatter.

At one moment, in a certain light, might've
Been welcomed a little cold, a blast of ice for
These fevered souls, yet this tundra
— Arctic swath of bellicosity, sweeping
Northern winds, serpentine razor wire — threatens
To still so much love. But

It is more than temperature that carves
Out these scrimshaw bones, it is a chill
By which to shiver away while the gears that are
The tick-tock mechanism of senescence, of sons'
And daughters' narrowing faces, of wives'
Expanding emptiness grind inexhaustibly on.

* * * * *

A rare instance of prison life making an appearance in my poetry, I penned "Siberian Exile" at the beginning of a bitter winter, slightly more than four years ago. The weather now is warming, but the sentiment remains. This is as chilly a place today as when I wrote the piece. Spring's arrival only reminds me of the world's perpetual push onward and my own stagnation. Seeing the foliage return to distant trees, it's hard not to get bitter about the passing of another season unjustly locked away. I am bitter enough as it is; I scarcely require Mother Nature adding more wormwood and walnuts to the regional flora.

03 April, 2011

If It's Not One Thing....

The completed memoir, as regular readers of The Pariah's Syntax know, was expected by late January. Call it first-book naïveté, but I really did believe I could make it what it needs to be with just two rewrites. Now, here is April, giggling and taunting me with her rush of springtime warmth. Truly the cruelest month, she asks, "Wasn't it about this warm outside when you started that project?"

Salt in the wound. The fact is, I've been hamstrung. Mere days from saturating the last page of draft number two with red ink, a precipice of accomplishment at which I was downright giddy, my typewriter — Old Faithful, my dogged workhorse of five years — went kaput. My first reaction was to curse mightily (I do that, from time to time), then I looked into repair costs. I cursed some more. An entirely new carriage assembly was needed which, as a reference point for those of you living comfortably in the twenty-first century, is like your inkjet's print head grinding to a halt. Only more expensive — insanely so, because no one in his right mind repairs typewriters in this day and age. Crazy old druids charge a lot for labor; however, the bill must be paid. I cannot hand-write my many shorter journal submissions any more than I can my book manuscript.

So now I wait. Friends tell me to make the most of the downtime. One suggested I "get some reading done."

"Take a vay-cay," prompted another.

"Go out for some fresh air," yet another insisted.

Someone else, trying to brighten my spirits, said, "Just think how motivated you'll be to work when you get it back from the shop!"

As if motivation weren't something I had enough of to bottle and sell at a premium. How I laughed when I heard these palliatives, so smilingly delivered. I laughed until I was worn out, then contemplated a nap. Too bad I was too dejected to sleep.

17 March, 2011

Doing Without: Some Thoughts on Ten Years of Celibacy

It strikes me as odd. I couldn't hazard a guess as to what was the last meal to cross my lips, the topic of conversation with the last friend I saw, or the last piece of music to grace the soundtrack of my life as a free man, yet it requires no effort to vividly recall my last sexual contact with another human being. It was ten years ago, that final intimacy — ten years ago this month.

We were engaged and sharing an apartment — one bedroom, one bath, two stories, two cats. She was twenty, I was twenty-two. Lovemaking was an everyday affair. Not in the sense that it was in any way boring, but that it was a constant. Because of regularity's tendency to benumb, there really oughtn't be any reason for our last time among so many to stand out in my mind as it does. But it does: her lifting the glass of Pinot Noir from my hand and whiskey-kissing me after dinner, the light smell of her short dark hair, our slender fingers interweaving as though they'd been meticulously crafted to lock just so....

Writing more about that night would be crass, but thinking about it is edifying, like regarding the stony ruins of a bygone civilization that strike dumb with their crumbled beauty. She and I lost touch four years ago, tumbled apart at last, our past too overgrown with vines to clearly see anymore. Still, I carry my memory of that final melding together as I would a totem, held tight, a perfect moment in the life I once called mine.

Everyone deserves their allotment of sentimental dreaminess. This is a taste of my own. And that's all it is — sentimentality. Some call me "the Monk" for my spartan material needs, not for any aspiration to piety or chastity; however I hardly obsess over the matters of the flesh. Over and over come people's questions about how I cope with this unnatural, enforced celibacy. Over and over I indulge the curious (as if it were any of their business) with answers. No, desperation hasn't found purchase. No, I've never been tempted by anyone around me here. At present, I have grander desires on which to focus. Carnality resides relatively low on my list of priorities.

It's there, though. Oh, it's there. Despite certain recurring allegations to the contrary, I am human, with all the accompanying physiological issues. And that damned sentimentality. More often than I'd prefer, I get stuck on the thought of how it would be, today, to clutch a certain someone close, share that intimate weight of bodies, sync two heartbeats, speak sharp-breathed solemnities, lift the scent from each other and slip with it into satiated dreams, to wake in the night, reach out, and be comforted by the warmth of a physical presence, by love. Then to rise in the morning and do it all again while the light slinks its way back toward the eastward windows. And to smile in the later day, happy for the lovely knowledge of another's naked secrets.

Of course, all this talk amounts to mere rambling by a man whose refuge now lies more within imagination than memory. After a decade, certitude means almost nothing; touch, so much more than I'll admit to even myself.

11 March, 2011

Cinema Purgatorio: It's (Not) Movie Time!

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was fresh to video in the summer of 2002, and I was fresh to prison. It surprised me to learn that rented movies played twenty-four hours a day on a closed-circuit channel here, and it pleased me to have a cellmate generous enough to let me watch Peter Jackson's three-hour epic depiction of Middle Earth on his TV. I'd rather have seen all that lush scenery on a screen larger than the window of a microwave oven, but it was better than missing out completely.

Back then, there were eleven movies shown each week — new ones, classics, indie releases, blockbusters, and everything in between. Inmates could even make requests by dropping notes off at the recreation office. Being the film snob I am, my requests didn't often jibe with what the convict population craved. Where most wanted blood and guts, or at least explosions and flames, of the Michael Bay variety, I wanted something more offbeat — Wes Anderson's quaint quirkiness or David Lynch's disquieting phantasmagorias. It gave me a secret in-the-know pleasure to overhear an inmate complain about films I chose. The time I requested Donnie Darko — that really screwed with people's heads: "Man, that was some serious bullshit!"

Quality and frequency of movies plummeted in 2005, when the then-governor issued an inexplicable executive order banning from Missouri prisons all video games and R-rated movies. News media reports on the decision quoted him as saying that without such influences prison conditions would improve. I smacked my forehead. Of course it was the movies that made inmates rape each other and do violence. How foolish everyone had been to ever think otherwise!

The only noticeable changes since then have been inmates' options in cinematic entertainment. It's money made from price markups at the commissary that funds the prison's nonessentials: gym equipment, library books, games for the visiting room, DVD rental. That commissary profit is what paid for an expensive "commercial grade" five-disc changer to rotate the month's entertainment on a preset schedule. It sounds far cooler than it is. We average four movies per month now — strictly non-animated G, PG, and PG-13 releases from major studios (except Fox). No more fascinating foreigns, no more intelligent indies, no more deep-delving documentaries. The company awarded the prison's rental contract for the last five years running, Swank Motion Pictures, sounds to my ears like a pornography studio, and I suppose that a name like that should tell me not to expect much in the way of artfully nuanced product, but hope springs eternal.

It's been a year since I watched anything on the movie channel worth my time. On its surface, under the circumstances, movies seem a petty matter to carp about. When so much else is ripped away, leaving vast, vacant fend-for-myself intervals to fill, the tiniest luxury is what I have to get by on. In this instance, that luxury is the escapism of a good film. Now even that's been taken. At least I still have words. They'll have to take those away before dreck like (current selection) The Last Exorcism appears to be an acceptable investment of an hour and a half.

02 February, 2011

Sneak Peek: MTV Cribs: Tha Big House

[Recently, I welcomed an MTV production crew for a tour of my surroundings, here at Crossroads Correctional Center. I'm told the first episode of MTV Cribs: Tha Big House — a penitentiary-themed spin-off of the network's celebrity homes covet-fest — will air in the near future, placing me in dubious company, with guided walk-throughs of the confining lodgings of actor Wesley Snipes and disgraced plunderer Bernie Madoff. Stay tuned for that, as well as my cameo (via phone) on the current season of Jersey Shore. Meanwhile, here's a teaser excerpted from my segment of the premiere episode of MTV Cribs: Tha Big House.]


Fast track through the prison yard to a wide two-storied concrete structure, up to its two outer doors. Along the way, we pass INMATES dressed in gray and giving confused looks to the camera.


Continued track into one of four window-fronted wings of the housing unit. Many green doors line two double-tiered walls that converge at the far end of the wing, forming an isosceles floorplan. Track upstairs, to the last door on the right. Door opens and BYRON greets the camera, dressed in a charcoal fleece and black state-issued boots.

Hello, everyone. Welcome to my — ugh, do I have to say it?

It's part of the show.

Fine. Welcome to my crib. Come inside, and I'll show you around.

We move through the doorway, into a gray nine-by-eleven cell.

I know you were probably hoping for it to be bigger on the inside, like the TARDIS on Doctor Who, but it turns out that that whole dimensional relativity thing isn't as easily accomplished as BBC sci-fi series would have us believe. Good thing I'm a minimalist. Oh, watch your shins around the commode, there. It juts.

BYRON indicates the gray metal desk, most of which is occupied by a thirteen-inch CRT television and a typewriter.

This is my workspace — where the magic happens, I guess. As you can see from the TV tuned to CMT, this blackened old coffee cup, and this stack of hard-rock cassette tapes, this side is my cellmate's. All this paper here, over here, and down there is mine. The typewriter, too, obviously. Old Faithful. Things aren't ordinarily this cluttered, but you guys caught me at the end of a big project. I planned to have my memoir finished last month, but I keep finding where it needs more work. You know how it goes.

BYRON regards some colorful wall decoration above and next to the desk.

My personal gallery. These are some of my favorite contemporary artists: Ray Caesar, Jonathan Weiner — over there's a snapshot a friend took in an Austrian market last year. It's a Banksy graffito. Good stuff. Here, above my "concert hall" are music-related images — band photos, some band flyers: the Black Heart Procession, David Bowie, Gary Numan, and so on.

Below the photographs of musical artists, BYRON draws our attention to a deep shelf bearing another small television, a boombox, paperback books, compact discs, an oscillating fan, and other smallish items.

Up here is my "private theater." The TV's only on for a few shows — Jeopardy! and news most days, Fringe on Fridays. The power button only works about a third of the time, and I change the channels by sticking a pen into this hole. The button broke out of it about six years ago. Thank goodness there's hardly anything worthwhile on.


Right. Except for MTV Cribs, of course. Naturally. Anyway, here are my CDs. Twenty — that's the property limit, so I keep only the basics. I have... let's see... some Depeche Mode, Einstürzende Neubauten, Goldfrapp, Morrissey, a few Gary Numan albums — I'm kind of obsessed with him. Sorry, no Lady Gaga. She's lyricus incognita for yours truly. My CD player basically stays on all day to drown out the typewriter noise. That, and the neighbor likes to kick out the slow jams, like Kenny G, which is just un-[expletive]-bearable. These cells at the ends of the walk are generally prime real estate — the penthouses of the prison — but sometimes not so much.

17 January, 2011

Winter Wonderland

The 1996 ice storm took out power across Kansas City for days. Not only were lines and transformers down, an inch-thick armor of frozen water toppled whole trees, which barricaded suburban streets with their dendrite forms. Roads were encased for blocks on end. For many, escape from their homes by car was impossible. Not that most risked road travel, given the conditions. Public Works trucks canvassed nonstop with salt and sand, but fighting the storm's effects proved a Sisyphean task. In their desperation, gas and electric companies had to enlist out-of-state assistance to do triage on the extensive damage. For thousands, life came to a standstill.

Warmth drained quicker than expected from the suburban three-bedroom my roommate and I — both seventeen; both precociously independent — shared. As the last sunlit hour slipped away, there was no indication we would have heat restored that night. Houses on the next block still had power, though, and this observation led us to believe a hot deep-dish might await intrepid souls hardy enough to make the half-mile journey east, to Torre's Pizza. Neither my roommate nor I wanted to sit around eating a cold dinner on such a night, candlelit or otherwise.

We slid into layers of sweaters and coats, and extinguished the near-bonfire of illumination by which we'd been reading in the living room. As Aaron, my roommate, crowned himself with his brown old-man hat, he joked, "Just so you know, if it starts to look like we won't make it, I'm hungry enough not to have qualms about resorting to cannibalism."

"That's no good," I said, covering my grimace with a scarf. "I'm hardly a meaty Brazilian soccer player."

"With all that time in front of the computer, I'll bet you're like veal."

"My stomach's growling. Let's go before this gets all Donner Party-freaky."

We were sobered by the state of things beyond our door. The spangled surface of everything was blue with the city's faint lambency, and alive with sound — the collective groans of miles of ice-weighted objects being pulled earthward. Had we held perfectly still awhile, the stinging flurry from the sky might have encased us as it had all else. Moving quickly through it as we did was to witness a rare beauty, like traversing the interior of a diamond.

Some parkour got us over and through the labyrinth of creaking branches obstructing the end of our block. After that, it was a more conventional walk down a wider, flatter route to the welcoming yellowed glow of Torre's. It seemed other neighborhood residents had the same idea for dinner; my famished friend and I pushed through the front door, frozen faces first, into a round of cheery hellos and not a few jokes about being fellow survivors of the winter apocalypse. For everyone's dedication to local business, drinks were on the house: iced-down sodas and tea, but still.

The next morning, Aaron and I built a fire pit in the backyard. The wind had stilled in the night, leaving something easily mistakable for warmth as we squinted against the brilliant daylight, toting scrap two-by-fours from the basement. With some newspaper and an old broom — voilà!: flames by which to cook. Aaron retrieved chairs off the patio; I raided the quieted refrigerator for perishables. We never ate such a breakfast as that. Omelets full of onions and fire-roasted tomatoes and peppers, fried potatoes in little pools of butter, a half-gallon of milk to wash it down with, and, later, coffee made from billy-boiled water poured oh-so slowly through our coffeemaker's detached basket of grounds. We ate and drank it all outside, in the crackling whiteness, like we were the last men alive. Nothing echoed, every sound an unfamiliar intimacy, the clinking of our forks nearer than I've ever heard, and our food magically better for that isolation.

For lunch we roasted Hebrew National hot dogs and drank mugs of rich cocoa with a flotilla of miniature marshmallows, sitting in our chairs and watching steam almost crystallize as it rose from our beverages and mouths alike. Neither of us spoke. Off in the distance of a neighboring yard was a cardinal, pecking at seeds in a feeder, and we watched him until something unseen and silent startled him away.

Regarding the light switch with a kind of mistrust, on the third day's return of electricity, Aaron said, "There's something to that, reading by candlelight. We should keep it up for awhile — the fire, all of it. Let's just unplug some of this stuff and go on living without the modern conveniences."

His naive enthusiasm was infectious, I'll admit. So we did it. But of course, amid the neighbors' resumption of their usual activity, it couldn't last. Snowblowers tore at the air. Nearby traffic hummed. After sunset, streetlights dug pits in the darkness. The cardinal made his home in some far-off tranquil field that only those with wings could reach.