31 December, 2010

The Case of the Mysteriously Manifesting Penny Dreadful: A Noir

It's a bitter cold Tuesday morning in late November I get a pass slipped in my door. The prison's property room, half-past eight. Must be another book, I think as I suck down the day's first mouthful of coffee and ponder the white slip in my hand. A half-assed smile creases my face. Happy thirty-second birthday, Byron. Looks like you're remembered.

People started gifting me books a few month ago. A real treat, that was. Before, prison rules said nobody could order me squat. If I wanted to feed my hunger for the word, I had to mail order it myself — squeeze the dough out of my inmate account. Those chuckleheads over in the state capital sure know how to cramp a fella's style. Anyway, then some genius gets the idea to have a business write the Department of Corrections a letter. Threatens to sue DOC for unfair business practices, or some such thing — what moxie! — and they drop the rule like a hot potato. All of a sudden, books are tumbling in. It's like everybody hitting triple cherries at the slots, all at once, and the dames in the mail and property rooms are sweating bullets trying to keep buckets underneath, just to keep everyone's jackpots from spilling out onto the floor. Oh sure, it slows eventually, but not before every one of those ladies get their chance to use some very unladylike language.

I've barely got time to finish off the dregs of coffee number one and brace myself for the cold. Halfway across the yard, some schmo asks if it's cold enough for me, as I'm passing him and blowing enough steam with each breath to run a locomotive to Poughkeepsie and back. There's one in every crowd, I swear. I shoot the schmo a lame smile and nod so he doesn't take it personal, then hurry on my way.

Sure enough, the package waiting is a book. The Petting Zoo. Jim Carroll, RIP. Just in time for my birthday, too. Seems one sweet tomato's still got me on her mind. Broads are really something else. I'm making a mental note to give her a ring — a call, I mean; she's hardly the settling-down type — when the woman behind the counter tells me I've got another book, from someplace else.

One look is all it takes to tell this other book's not my style. The cover's a mess of red foil embossing, grisly fonts, and some half-painted panorama of a crow and a human skull in the snow. Kafka, it ain't. Plus, I'm iffy on any book with back-cover hype that ends with an ellipsis for no apparent reason....

"You sure that's mine?" I ask.

The brunette acts like checking the packaging's some kind of chore. She smacks her gum as she shows me the envelope and says, "There's no invoice, but it's got your name on it."

I shrug and sign for my two books. Back at the housing unit, I'm defrosting, waiting on hot water for another cup of joe, and checking out my haul. The Petting Zoo was on my wish list. Hopefully it'll be everything I hoped. But this surprise novel's a funny thing. A paranormal mystery by some redheaded bestseller is far enough beyond my area of expertise that I know it's time to call in help. I take the feather-light beach read across to my neighbor. He's up on all this pulpy stuff. Maybe he can point me in the right direction. Right now, I'm stuck holding my hat.

I get to his door, the guy looks like he's been worked over in a barroom brawl with Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels. Turns out, he's just waking up. I thank my lucky stars my thirty-two still looks better than his twenty-eight, first thing in the morning. Yeah, I'm a shallow SOB.

I hold the cover up to his face like it's evidence in a murder trial. "Do you know anything about this?"

My neighbor squints and makes a noise like an angry camel.

"Is that a yes or a no? We've been through this before: use your words."

"It's the third in a series," he says, adjusting his glasses. "Who sent you this?"

"That's what I'm trying to find out. Everyone knows I don't read this stuff. I don't suppose you're interested in getting first crack at it, are you?"

"Don't try to pawn your trash off on me," he sneers. My mysterious gift gets tossed back. "You're not gonna read that, are you?"

I riffle the pages like something good's going to leap out at me. It doesn't. "It's a birthday present. Of course I'm going to read it. I won't enjoy it, but I'll read it."

"Suit yourself. I bet it was somebody who doesn't like you. Like it's a secret message of hate. Maybe from that old guy with the website — the one who's obsessed with you."

The Antibyron. That whackjob who has single-handedly waged a decade-long campaign to make me out to be the Prince of Darkness. I got life without parole, but that joker's not happy unless he can air a lot of seventeen-year-old gossip about yours truly. I guess there's no pleasing some people. Thing is, except for the time he sent me a shrewish little birthday card, a few years back, his attacks were always limited to online insults. Spending a sawbuck on a book would be out of character, but I don't put it (or much else) below him. My sleepy neighbor may be onto something.

When I get an itch, I've got to scratch. The morning's not even out when I pick up the weird little book and turn to page one. It takes all of ten seconds for me to start rolling my eyes, but the thing's not completely unreadable. The skirt who wrote it's got a real gift for cheese, that's for sure. It's hard to get how she rakes in the clams. I know she's loaded, though, what with that peach of a TV deal on her other book series. Then there's the other 600 titles she's written. The gal's definitely hungry for success and, by the look of it, hardly starving.

Every couple of pages, I gotta stop for a breath. The story's boring me silly at the same time as it turns my gut with its over-the-top plot: a psychic investigator-for-hire who feels dead people, her stepbrother lover, sadomasochistic homosexual-pedophile murderers — it's got the Antibyron's name written all over it. I force myself to keep reading. Then, halfway through, it dawns on me.

I get on the phone and call my girl Friday. She's already at her keyboard when she picks up. It's like I got a psychic of my own, ready as she is for everything.

Pleasantries dispensed, we're right down to business. I give her the name of the outfit that sent the book. "See if they'll tell you who placed the order," I say.

There's a flurry of keystrokes in the background as she types up the e-mail. She says, "This is the same place I ordered your birthday gift from. I guess you didn't get that yet, though, huh?"

What a sweetheart. She's always got me on her mind. "You're the best. No, I didn't get it. Do I get to know what it is, or are you keeping it a surprise?"

"Book of Longing. You mentioned you wanted it a few months ago."

"And you remembered? Color me impressed."

"Of course I remembered." She pauses. "Okay, the e-mail's sent. Hopefully we'll find something out. Do you think maybe it's the Antibyron? The title's creepy."

"You're the second person to suggest that. I kind of doubt he'd shell out ten bucks for something so obtuse when he can just send me another card."

"He spends money on web hosting," she fires back. Got me on that one.

The book ends in a quick but painful 280 pages — both murderers taken out, one almost-victim saved. It takes me two days. When it's done, I let it fall from my hands. Bullshit. As far as secret messages, I couldn't get anything from it. One part of the story addressed the red herring — some creepy fella in the town who's fingered by neighbors because he's antisocial. Two pages of speechifying about the innate human need for closure, how sad it is when some poor sap winds up a scapegoat, how we ought to be more careful when we go pointing at folks we think are guilty. The whole thing's a little too nail-on-the-head to my situation, and it makes me second-guess the Antibyron theory. But if it wasn't him, then who?

Not that it keeps me up at night, not knowing. It does preoccupy me when I'm trying to get some work done. A few weeks go by, and I'm still just as clueless as I was when the damn book got here. To make matters worse, the poetry collection my assistant got me still hasn't arrived. I've got other reading material, though. And there's always my writing. Much as I hate leaving matters up in the air, I gotta let this one go. Sometimes you try and still don't get the answers you're looking for, and you just have to accept it. That's life, you know?

Then it's a Wednesday night. I'm talking with my assistant, catching up on some old business about an artist — that's another story entirely — when she's out of the blue with a report on the missing Book of Longing I've been, well, longing for.

"They switched them," she says.

"Say what?"

"They switched them. The orders. The man who e-mailed back told me your order was next to someone else's and each book went in the wrong envelope."

"Wait, so someone who was expecting their third installment of this mystery series got a collection of poems and essays by Leonard Cohen, and I got their pulpy little crapfest?" I've gotta laugh at that one. "Do I need to send the book I got back to them, or what?"

"Nope. They say they're going to fix the problem. Just be patient."

"What the hell, I've waited this long."

I get off the phone and go back to my cell. The little book that caused all this distraction is buried in the very back of one of the nooks in my desk. I pull it out and look at it. Hard to believe I'd be so paranoid to think it might actually be a coded message from some obsessed jerk. I almost feel bad for misjudging the Antibyron. Almost. He didn't send me this dumb book, but he's still a sleazebag.

20 December, 2010


I'm boycotting Christmas. No carols, no festive films, no cards, no nothing. This requires less effort than one might think, but more than it should, since the first indication I had that Christmas was coming was from a commerical that aired on Halloween night — announcing a furniture store's holiday sale. The airwaves have since been inundated. Save for my three daily half-hour shows, my TV's stayed off. I even quit watching news. I'm determined.

But why?
you ask. Christmas is the most joyful, festive time of the year!

To which I respond, Bah.

I cite all the old arguments — those of craven materialism, meaningless tradition for tradition's sake, pious sentiment disguised as goodwill — and add to them my own strong distaste for forced joviality. It creeps me out when some unnamed They tell the masses that, because of the time of year, we should be happy, generous, and amply fed. Failure to be all three, consistently, through the end of December, brands you a killjoy, or worse. It's my prerogative to be miserable, stingy, and peckish whether the halls are decked or not. Besides, shouldn't we strive for peace on Earth year-round?

07 November, 2010

Earth to Byron: Do You Read?

Yes, I read... and I write. And to those who have wondered about my doings of late — the mysterious behind-the-curtain business that's all but ended my contact with the outside world — my book-writing is what's got you thinking I went and pulled a Hemingway or a Plath, when the reality is closer to Salinger or Dickinson. I'm not dead, in other words, just hiding.

My memoir is approaching completion and I commit more of myself to it every day, as if my anticipated January completion date weren't soon enough. The passion of watching the stack of pages grow and grow, from the meager handful of sheets that came from my first day's work at the typewriter, is a consuming one. Now that the critical rewriting process is days away, I'm all tingly with the urge to hack and slash these 250-plus pages down to something more readable. My unforgiving red pen has a name amongst the incarcerated writers who bring me their drafts to edit or dispassionately critique — a name many dare not to speak — and I am probably sick for wanting to wield it against my own creation. If it means rewriting my entire book in red, I'm committed to making it the best memoir it can be. Besides, I've been called far worse than "sick" in my time. That, at least in part, is what the book is about.

So while you wait and wonder, don't let your imagination run too wild. I'm alive and well. Bear with me a little while longer; I'll bring you the proof soon. Meanwhile, a birthday card this month would be nice. I'm not too busy to smile.

25 October, 2010

Halloween in the Hoosegow

[This post, as well as four others from The Pariah's Syntax, was selected by the editors of Meridian, a semi-annual literary journal from the University of Virginia, for publication in their twenty-seventh issue, in May 2011. The other posts to appear in that issue were "On the Scarcity of Toilet Paper" "Only A Fleeting Thing," "In Memory of Monuments," and "Joe." But just because you can read them here doesn't mean that you shouldn't order a copy from Meridian's website, thereby supporting the kind of publication daring enough to print such writings as these.]
There are only two things about Halloween I don't like. One is that it only gets celebrated one day each year. The other is that some people think it's acceptable to give out wax lips to trick-or-treaters — it isn't. As to the former, someone in a position of influence needs to institute Halloween as a bimonthly event. I suspect such a practice would work well for everyone. Since it is just an annual thing, though, I'm compelled to milk every minutely spooktacular moment for all it's worth. Even in prison.

Years ago, in the weeks leading up to Halloween, I made a pilgrimage to the local mega-drugstore for industrial-sized bags of generic candy corn. (As if there were such a thing as name-brand candy corn!) It seems mid-autumn is the only season US candle manufacturers see fit to add sugar to their mix and rebrand it as something edible. Yes, I realize the paradox of acknowledging the vast undesirability of candy corn while simultaneously, as I am now, salivating for it. Can anyone supply a hypothesis as to why this is? Could it be something Pavlovian about the familiar tricolor cones, conditioned within us from a young age? Or is it some deep evolutionary cause the makers of that waxy deliciousness willfully exploit? All I know is that I would eat them until my tongue was raw.

Scary movies were another tradition for me. The week before Halloween always found me screening the favorites, both creepy and corny, that I considered synonymous with the Eve of All Hallows, from The Night of the Living Dead to The Nightmare Before Christmas, from Bram Stoker's Dracula to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, from Universal Studios' masterful Frankenstein to Mel Brooks's mocking Young Frankenstein. My living room was a tomb, bathed in eerie television light, from which the most godawful sounds emerged to haunt the neighbors' dreams... like the songs of Shock Treatment, the 1981 follow-up to Rocky Horror.

On the day — or, rather, the night — itself, there was always a costume for me to don, always an event for me to attend, always a fantastic escape from the quotidian day-to-day, until dawn at last eased itself up from the horizon and drove me back to my lair, like the ghostly Count in Nosferatu.

The rising sun hasn't driven me westward in a long time, but I still make Halloween a special event. There are enough shockingly nonnutritious foodstuffs available from the prison canteen that my compatriot in Halloween fandom and I can splurge every year on milk chocolate and jellybeans. These sweets carry us through the marathons of horror flicks that air on basic cable, which we watch wide-eyed and poorly postured — zombified, if you like — on our bunks, surrounded by empty bags of M&Ms and microwave popcorn.

We don't stop at candy. Between the two us us, we split a couple of full-size bags of tortilla chips. Both get smothered by three pounds of pinto beans, a half-pound of cooked summer sausage, nearly a pound of spicy nacho cheese, liberal applications of picante sauce and ranch dressing, an entire freshly diced onion, and, not to overdo it, a gentle scattering of sliced Spanish olives.

This ghoulish helping of elaborate nacho-feasting is our consolation for missing out on all the apple-bobbing fun you people are having out there without us. When you're so full it hurts, it's hard to feel too awfully upset about life's injustices.

Of course, it is possible that even an enormous portion of spicy junk food won't eliminate the bitterness completely. For these situations we reserve the nuclear option: It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. No melancholy I have yet known can withstand this tag team of simple joys.

01 October, 2010

Cellmate Freakshow, Part Seven: Blake

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

Some dance to the beat of a different drummer; Blake danced to absolutely nothing at all. And like a drunk, genetically engineered hybrid of John Travolta and Michael Jackson (circa Saturday Night Fever and Bad, respectively), Blake did his hilarious little jig with flailing disco arms and shambling steps. He did it on request ("Hey, Blake, do your dance for us!") and he did it often. Everyone laughed but Blake. To him, dancing was serious business.

His favorite show, watched daily in reruns, was Beverly Hills 90210. With plots and an overall look that bore striking similarity to shows made in the 1950s, 90210 always seemed dated to me. Blame Aaron Spelling, I guess. Blake, however, had been born in that earlier era. He was hopelessly in love with the zeitgeist of his childhood — doo-wop music, pompadours, hugely double-breasted suits — so the temporal confusion of his beloved show was all the more reason to be into it as much as he was. During scenes of school assemblies, graduations, or applause inspired by performing artists, Blake followed suit with a polite golf clap. If there was onscreen dancing, he shuffled his feet around on the floor, doing a seated approximation of the jitterbug. If Donna got herself into yet another jam, or if there was trouble brewing for Brandon, Blake murmured a little "uh-oh" and made a tsk-tsk noise under his breath.

Endearing as these quirks might seem, he wasn't always a genial simpleton. Often he'd become angry about trivial things and lash out. I suspected OCD.

In the library, once, before we were cellmates, I saw him trying to find something on the computerized card catalog with little success. Letter by letter, he beat out whatever keyword he was working with, muttering as he went. Halfway through, he smacked himself. "No, no, no!" he said, and backspaced angrily. From the top, he gave it another go, and, again, failed. Smack to his face: "Bitch!" Again the backspace. Six or seven rounds of this caught the library guard's attention. Told to stop, Blake's anger instantly dissipated. All low stammers, he said to her, "Oh, uh, I was just... uh, I didn't... uh — sorry."

His anger was always inwardly directed, which was both good and bad. He was spotted one time, behind the three-quarters door of a shower stall, having a stern conversation with his genitals. The witness to this (not me, thank goodness) described it as a scolding, complete with finger wagging. Asked what the confrontation had been about, the witness only laughed. He hadn't stuck around long enough to find out.

What reasons could a man have for berating his own penis?

In the dining hall, where he worked as a table wiper, Blake always mumbled to himself. It was on the job that his minute slip-ups took on even greater significance, because everything had to be done just so, according to the precise standards laid out in his arcane internal schematics. This included the direction and necessary number of swipes of his rag to clean a table. "Oh, fiddle-faddle," he said after making his first "mistake." Standing up straight and pretending to approach the same table for the first time, he produced a freshly rinsed rag and wiped again. "Oh, fiddle-dee-dee," he said when the do-over failed.

Reset. Hands down at his sides, eyes closed. A deep breath. Try again.

"Fiddlesticks!" And again.

Wipe, wipe, wipe. Pause. "Shit!"

At least Blake tried. It was more than I could say for most.

12 September, 2010

Cellmate Freakshow, Part Six: Snake

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

Does it go without saying that someone who introduces himself as "Snake" might not be wholly trustworthy? Will I be going beyond my duties to you, dear reader, if I tell you as much and proceed to enumerate the specific reasons why? I won't even bore you with an analysis of the name's implication, since you can figure that out from a distance. but what about the other stuff — the eponymous subject's creepy appearance, his skulking mannerisms, his toothless serpentine lisp? None of these are explicit. I think I can bring them to light without the risk of annoying anyone.

He came in a blue ballcap, beneath which, in pits, lurked what in poor light might pass for eyes. They slithered over every inch of the half empty cell as he dragged his footlocker in. I could see the question forming in his head before he parted his liver-purple lips to ask it: "You some kind of OCD neat-freak?" The oily snarls draping his head did little to conceal his jaundiced complexion as he stood inside the doorway, waiting for a response.

That first evening with Snake as a cellmate made clear why my cleanliness was an issue for him when I caught him wiping a booger on the edge of the desk.

"What the hell are you doing?"

"Oh, like you don't get shit in your nose!"

A rocky start.

Never mind our differences, he showed off his entire photo album on his third day with me, narrating the whole way through: "That's my niece, Michelle, on her fourteenth birthday. That's the living room in my house, where the party was. I won that house in a game of poker, fixed it all up myself — built a new bedroom on the back, put on a new roof. Turn the page, you'll see what it looked like before. Guy was Russian that I won it from. He had a glass eye with a pentagram for a pupil. There's the basement. I dug it out by hand, did all that sheetrock and everything — the bar, pool table. Found a bunch of old bones while I was digging. Human ones, had all this weird writing on them. I researched the symbols; they were ancient Viking hexes, turns out. I sold them to this guy in Germany who was real interested in that kind of stuff. Next page is the Monte Carlo I bought with the bone money. Fastest quarter-mile in the whole state...."

I don't need to tell you that the house was a dump, that the car looked to have stock exhaust and all-weather tires, or that the stream-of-consciousness fabrications over each page of his bulging photo album continued for what seemed like hours. When he finished, I staggered to my feet and sought rejuvenation in a cup of coffee. I'd been tired enough after my busy day at work. The bag of freeze-dried granules felt lighter than I thought it should, but, in spite of my long-standing suspicions about his skimming off the top, I said nothing. I didn't have the energy.

Snake's favorite way to begin a sentence was, "Most people don't know...." He was big on declaiming and would talk you into a stupor if you weren't prepared. Favorite topics included cryptozoology, ghosts, black magic, and conspiracies. I'm sure he talked most about the latter to his next cellmate, down in the Hole, concocting an insidious idea about Them being out to get him, silence him, torture him, or worse, and mapped out every phase of Their diabolic plot to the poor schmo stuck in the cell with him. Meanwhile, back in reality, Snake was actually locked up for hiding under the bunk during a head count. On the guards' third time past our cell, one of them saw his foot and opened the door to investigate. When the time came to question Snake about his reason for interfering with a count, he reportedly stuck out his tongue and hissed.

23 August, 2010

The Old Books Question Has a New Answer

It took the threat of a lawsuit, but the Missouri Department of Corrections finally revised its policy regarding book orders. Those in the free world (i.e., you) may now have books sent to prisoners (i.e., me), provided the books come from a vendor and appear new. Hardcover or paperback, fiction or non, hefty reference or bathroom reader — almost anything goes.

Remember that magical literary novel you said last winter I just had to read? I no longer have to vainly hope the Crossroads library will order it some day. And that collection of essays you offered to send me three years ago, only to be told you couldn't? Well, now you can. The coffee table book of risqué cabaret dancer portraits you thought I'd enjoy to no end? While theoretically allowed, the one I carry around in my head is probably better, but thanks anyway.

For everyone who's asked, and for those who didn't but now want to know, I've put together a wish list on Amazon. But don't let it keep you from expanding my horizons with books of your own choosing. Some of the best things I've read have been at the insistence of friends. Your thoughtfulness and generosity are sincerely appreciated. So is your consideration of my busy writing schedule; unless they're two-day reads, I must ask that no more than two books be sent at a time.

20 August, 2010

Cellmate Freakshow, Part Five: Tracy

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

I was nervous at first, knowing Tracy was going to be my new cellmate, because there was no telling how Hitman was going to feel about a stranger moving in with his baby. Was he going to be jealous? Might he use Tracy to try roping me into his stable of boys? That didn't strike me as Hitman's style, but I couldn't be sure. The walk to Tracy's cell, pulling a cartful of my property, was an anxious one.

Everyone knew he was Hitman's boy. The two of them practically worked together arm-in-arm in the kitchen, they mirrored each other's steps when they walked the yard, and from time to time they shared a cell. It wasn't merely guilt by association: Tracy shaved his legs, arms, back, and who knows what else (I certainly don't want to), and Hitman's reputation for borderline exploitative same-sex arrangements was evidence enough. There was little room for argument. Still, Tracy felt the need to repeatedly declare, "I ain't no fag; I know I'm a man," without any provocation. That he thought he was closeted was fine with me. As long as his ego was on the line, I could be confident no funny business was going to take place.

The worst part about living with him was the interrupted sleep. Five days a week I was awakened at 6:30 AM by a noxious bout of concussive diarrhea. As though from multiple blasts of mustard gas canisters, my nose burned and blistered, my eyes withered to dried peas in their sockets. And after the initial explosions: smoke, heady perfume-stink, as the scented oil with which he doused a forty-watt light bulb became steamy clouds. I covered my head with my blanket, even folded it double over my nose, but couldn't keep from crying.

Whenever he wasn't around, the passive-aggressive form my revenge took was to call him Squirty. My friends, agonized by my continual complaints, knew him by no other name. The inmates of my acquaintance soon started calling him that, too. It's surprising the nickname never got back to him, considering the number of people in on the secret. Even my girlfriend at the time asked if she could mail him an anonymous card advising he lay off the laxatives. (I said no.) Poor Squirty seemed incapable of having a private life. We were all too happy to air his dirty laundry for him.

Actually, there was giggling even when he hung up clean laundry. One afternoon I entered the cell, after work, and was confronted by a row, suspended on coat hangers from our makeshift clothesline, of pink jock straps like plucked naked birds. I knew he'd smuggled cherry Kool-Aid back from the kitchen that morning; I'd seen the powder in a jar by the door.

"I can't believe I did that," he said by way of greeting.

"Did what?"

"Man, I thought I was putting laundry soap in there, and it was that Kool-Aid shit I brought in. I was so tired I didn't even notice. Now they're all jacked-up." He paused, looked at me. "At least nobody else is gonna see them."

I thought, Everyone's going to hear about them, though. Those who had suffered my tales of Squirty's early-morning olfactory insurrections were unanimously relieved that I had new material.

18 August, 2010

Some Incongruity with Your Coffee, Mr. Case?

My coffee is still to hot to drink when I step onto my second-floor walk — the nearest thing to a porch I have — to prop myself on a railing and watch the other early risers. I'm succeeding at holding my eyelids apart, for the most part, but let no one ever accuse me of being a morning person.

The wing's a tomb, except for the hum of the ice machine revving up for another 900° August day. Then, suddenly, a blur of motion below me. Imagine: the convict is from central casting, with the requisite waxed scalp, weight-pile musculature, and inked skin that make him a perfect candidate for that new FX Network drama. He's strutting; the saunter says, unequivocally, badass. And yet... my bleary sights focus on the little platter he's transporting to the microwave and I chuckle aloud. Our fierce Aryan's breakfast? No, not a cigarette and the blood of an Untermensch. It's a couple of slim toaster pastries topped with pastel pink icing and, in the whole spectrum of Easter-egg colors, sprinkles.

Sprinkles! Can you believe it? This is all it takes for my mood to elevate and my entire day to improve.

29 July, 2010

Cellmate Freakshow, Part Four: Bob

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

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

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

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

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

22 July, 2010

Cellmate Freakshow, Part Three: Hoss

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

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

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

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

"Did you look behind your footlocker?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 July, 2010

Arthouse à l'Improviste

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 June, 2010

Cellmate Freakshow, Part Two: Ray

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

The thick, bluish 3 tattooed  on the left side of his neck commemorated Ray's special love for NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt. Sitting on his footlocker by the door and smoking a cigarette rolled from discarded butts found on the yard, he held forth on his dream of moving to the Canadian Rockies. Into a cave.

"No thanks," I told him. "I prefer to be closer to people, to civilization."

"Well, I wouldn't be alone. I'd stop at some bar on the way, pick me up a pretty blonde chick."

"Good luck with that, Ray. I doubt too many women — even the ones willing to leave a bar with some strange guy — would settle down with him in the middle of nowhere. You watched a lot of Grizzly Adams as a kid, didn't you?"

At this, Ray twitched like a bug had flown into his eye. A flurry of ash drifted to the floor, prompting me to wonder if I'd be the one to have to sweep it up or if he'd notice it (I was; he didn't). Totally earnest, he said "Man, she'd love it. I'd have a bunch'a solar panels out there to run my big screen TV an' my stereo an' the amp for my guitar! Play some Dokken out there, man — that'd keep them bears away, boy!"

"What about food? Are you going to hunt for everything?"

"Nah, I'll have a helicopter. Every couple'a months I'll fly out for supplies."

Here was the point at which I realized I was dealing with a profoundly naive mind. Ray was deathly serious about his fantasy, and I elected to play along until I could steer the conversation in a different direction.

"It sounds like you've got this all figured out."

"Yeah," he said, grinning a fencepost smile. "Our kids — we'd have three kids, 'course, all boys — I'd give 'em all 3 tattoos on their necks on their third birthdays. We'd go out huntin' turkeys an' wild cows an' stuff. I'd teach 'em how to play the guitar. The 3 thing — that's 'cause they gotta know who Dad's hero is. We'd watch all the races together, too."

Apparently satisfied then to entertain this outlandish scenario silently, in his scruffy, narrow head, Ray took a long, contemplative drag off his second-hand smoke and stared at some spot in the middle distance. I took advantage of the break by returning to the book I'd been reading. Five minutes later, he interrupted the silence to tell me about the best shot of heroin he'd ever done. He overdosed in another cell the following week.

30 May, 2010

Cellmate Freakshow, Part One: Bruce

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

Odor preceded him the way rumbling presages the arrival of a freight train. His particular mélange was one of dirty socks, horse manure, and just a hint of vomit. It was like absolutely nothing I had ever known. When he tottered into the cell, that first evening, fresh from several months in the Hole, carrying a bundle of his meager belongings, I was overcome but managed somehow to keep from retching. As he spoke to introduce himself, I couldn't help seeing mysterious particles hidden away in his brain-coral topiary of gray-brown facial hair. They were dread secrets I daren't wish to know. The handshake he proffered was sticky.

The Hole offers an admittedly rough standard for hygiene — five-minute showers every three days, no fingernail clippers, no shaving paraphernalia, et cetera. Even a couple of nights there will leave the average man feeling its stale miasma has soaked into his skin, necessitating a long, hot shower with lots of lathery scrubbing. Thinking my new cellmate's first order of business would involve a washcloth and soap, I went around the wing in search of both for him. It did not occur to me to ask why he didn't have his own.

While I was questing, Bruce went to claim the personal property that was stored during his segregation time. He got back to the cell before me, plugged in his TV, and was standing, indulging in some mindless entertainment, when I returned with a fresh towel, washcloth, and a bar of Irish Spring. "Oh, thanks," he muttered distractedly, taking my gifts without taking his eyes from the screen. Then, in one disturbing, fluid motion, he pulled off his state-issued gray pants and fell back onto his bunk, in boxer shorts and a tattered T-shirt, with an unapologetic burst of flatulence. "America's Funniest Videos is on!"

Everywhere he went, he was in top gear. One couldn't help conjuring the image, as Bruce speed-walked past, of an alpine skier in summer training. Such was his posture. He actually leaned into his turns.

After going three days without a shower, I finally had to ask him outright to bathe. He went without a fuss, as if used to being told he stank. The perilous speed at which he careened back to the cell, combined with wet flip-flops on a waxed concrete floor, sent him right to his ass in the middle of the wing. Our neighbors saw and were heartily amused. Bruce merely got back to his feet and resumed his prior breakneck pace for the remainder of the walk. Nothing would keep him from a moment of half-naked lounging.

That rush to return to blissful pantsless reclining was eventually his downfall. In his slalom from the dining hall, late one afternoon, he let a series of doors slam shut behind him, right in the faces of several iffy characters. One of the more aggressive of these caught up to Bruce in the wing, what had to be mere tantalizing instants before he was able to shed his pants, and punched him in the head several times. I was not close enough to see, but I have no doubt the series of impacts caused whole ecosystems of little wriggly things to fly out of Bruce's huge beard.

He and his offended assailant tussled awhile before guards tackled and handcuffed them both, then led them away to the Hole. When, as his cellmate, the duty fell upon me to pack Bruce's property into his footlocker for storage, I requested, and was given, a pair of latex gloves. If I could have asked for a dust mask, I would have. Even his TV smelled weird.

01 May, 2010

Publicity and the Current State of the Case

When I wrote in my to-do list that I wanted to appear on the radio, doing an interview about my case and the Skeptical Juror book wasn't what I had in mind. Nevertheless, when the invitation came to talk about these topics live on Sharon Lockhart's call-in program, on KKFI, my mother and I accepted. It was the first interview I'd considered granting since the 2002 fiasco that was the Pitch's "Cemetery Plot" story.

As it turned out, those forty minutes of my Saturday afternoon couldn't have been much better spent, nor friendlier to our cause. Ms. Lockhart was fascinated and appalled by the facts presented in the book (as is almost everyone who's read it), and asked all the questions an attentive reader would: Where is Kelly Moffett today? What is being done now to reverse Byron's conviction? Will the discoveries made by J. Bennett Allen in the book be used to get a new trial? Astute questions, all.

I hung up the phone at the end of the interview and took a deep breath. Talking about the case has never stopped being a draining experience. But this was totally worth it. I plugged the Free Byron Case site (and even this blog), and funds appeared soon thereafter, donated to help with legal expenses. The book also landed in the hands of a few more people, some at the station itself. Later I realized the experience even allowed me to cross an item off my list. To Sharon Lockhart I owe one huge debt of gratitude.

It's certain that interest in the case is spreading. The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Byron Case has a lot to do with that. The Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez requested a copy of the book, and other news sources have given signs of flirting with the idea of making stories of it, proving that local media is paying attention. More exciting, though, is that two prestigious law firms (one of them nationally renowned) have sought out their own copies for what should be self-evident reasons. All this is just at the time of this writing. Can I be blamed for my enthusiasm?

We're only four months into 2010, yet already there's conspicuous promise for me and my cause. As the months progress I'm confident that more and more goodness will come. Spirits are higher than ever for everyone involved with the fight for my freedom. At the risk of sounding like an overenthusiastic corporate executive, I think we're close to the tipping point — the critical moment when we see concrete results and gain wide public recognition. Right now, in other words, things are looking good. Really, really good.

30 April, 2010

Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em

What I'm about to describe to you is disgusting. As with many of the world's stomach-turning stories — the one about the boy and the sherbet container of frozen chicken fat, the one about the woman's devastating encounter with an airplane lavatory, the one about Orson Welles and the scandalized buffet-counter employee — the information I am about to share with you is also 100% true.

You have heard about the value of tobacco products in prison. You may know, for example, that a pack of cigarettes is considered a fair trade for a book of twenty stamps or a shot of trashbag hooch. You may also know that greater numbers of packs will buy even more impressive things: a cell with a better view, maybe someone named Peaches with whom to share that cell.

What might come as a surprise to you is that there are areas in prison where tobacco is prohibited. These are segregation units, where inmates are confined with even fewer privileges than normal, as a result of a conduct violation. It's prison for the already imprisoned; residents call it the Hole. The prohibitive policies of the institutions do little to curb the tobacco trade in these places, frequent cell raids and strip-searches be damned.

How? Well, this is where it gets unpleasant. I'm talking here about butt tobacco.

Packed tightly into numerous little balls, wrapped snug in the fingers of contraband plastic or latex gloves, then swallowed or, uh, otherwise introduced into one's innermost nooks, thousands of pounds of tobacco is muled, like so much marijuana through US border crossings, into segregation units of prisons across the country. [Source: Arbitrary Fake Statistic Generation Department.]

The idea of passing a bit of smokeable material through a stretch of one's digestive tract might offend some individuals' senses of what's fundamentally right or wrong. Smokers on the outside, particularly, will surely be revolted by the thought of this. Not that it makes it less offensive, but those little balloons are packaged with care, double- and triple-wrapped. It's in the best interests of those at both ends of the supply chain (so to speak). Not even the most addicted smoker wants to fire up a cigarette that reeks of untended nursing home.

Just the same, I know this happens all the time. In the Hole, desperate individuals will pay five dollars for just enough tobacco to fill up a standard-sized sugar packet, which is the going rate, and make it last a couple of days. Either they don't care, or simply don't give consideration to the way it reached them. They just roll a pinch of it up in a page torn from their Bible's book of Revelation, light it with a double-A battery and some wire, and breathe deeply. And if, by some chance, there wafts up a whiff of campground outhouse as they take that first puff, there might be a moment's grumbling, but nobody asks for their money back. Refunds are probably a real pain in the ass.

10 April, 2010

The War on Ephemera and Cardboard Furnishings

On one side you find the prison guards. Their job is to ensure the safety and security of the institution by enforcing policy. On the opposite side are the inmates, whose efforts at living in relative comfort while serving their sentences are frequently at odds with those policies. The struggle is endless; the battles are a never-ending back-and-forth.

The guards perform routine random cell searches, with every inmate here at Crossroads guaranteed a minimum of two chances per month to have their footlockers and loose property rifled through — once by the day shift, once by the evening. Depending on the guards' moods, the search experience can be measured on a scale that runs from relief, as when it's brief and nothing's left horribly out of place, and a nightmare, as when the guards leave the place looking as though they turned it upside-down and shook it. Certain guards are notorious for preferring the invert-and-agitate method. They are not exactly liked.

It's the "nuisance contraband" that is most often found and confiscated in these random searches: empty cracker boxes, excess newspapers, improvised ashtrays. Last week, a huge poster of a basketball player was pulled down from a neighbor's wall; the week before, someone was forced to part with an empty five-gallon sealing compound bucket. From some cells come more impressive items, often handmade.

One man in my wing is a crafts master. He makes hardcover address books, rocking-chair picture frames, and dreamcatchers, among other things. The dreamcatchers are his most popular creation, which he makes from the thread of clothing scraps and what I suspect are melted plastic coathangers. His methods are proprietary. The results look like something you'd be able to buy from a catalog. Naturally the guards know what he's up to and visit him frequently, big plastic trash bags in hand. No matter how many times they take his supplies and half-finished projects, he does not abandon his hobby. It's hard not to admire that dedication a little.

Across from me there used to reside a waifish slip of a man who welcomed the occasional, ahem, gentleman caller into his cell. "Melissa," he called himself. Asked to step out for a search of his cell one afternoon, he waited patiently while two guards picked through his things. No more than a few minutes later, one of the two came out with a wad of something fuschia in his gloved hand, which he tossed into the trash bag. Melissa lost it. Whatever they'd taken was obviously a prized possession, something he cared enough about to face off with the guards over. "Nuh-uh," he shouted again and again. "That's mine." Heads turned; the commotion was impossible to ignore. He stood arguing with them for over twenty minutes, apparently never able to finagle the return of the confiscated item. It was several hours later when I overheard what the fuss had been about: the guards had taken his last pair of thong underwear.

Being no angel, I've certainly had my share of things confiscated; though, nothing so precious as a handcrafted object nor salacious as a pair of exotic smallclothes. For awhile, cardboard, wood glue, and paint were easily gotten, and I availed myself of that fact. With enough of these three components I could build small shelving units and miniature cabinets — some with cutout designs in the doors — that looked like they might've been part of the actual design of the place, to the untrained eye. Space being at a premium here, a cubby in which to store cassette tapes or toiletries came in handy. Best of all, the guards didn't seem to care these constructs were contraband made out of illicitly obtained supplies; they left them alone. Some were able to keep their shelves for a couple of years. Then, all at once, they disappeared, a sudden adherence to the letter of policy enacted. The sources for the supplies vanished at around the same time. No one I know has dared dabble in cardboard carpentry since.

A few other things I've lost in searches, some of which I was sorry to lose:

  • One three-dimensional paper Mini Cooper (yellow)

  • One decorative wax -paper votive shade (German street carnival scene)

  • Seven wire twist-ties (black)

  • Two highlighter markers (one yellow, one blue)

  • Two packages ramen soup (beef flavor) that were later returned with an apology

  • Five decorative pencils cups (made from oatmeal canisters)

  • My expectations of personal privacy

28 March, 2010

Sleepless Nights, Past and Present

I am in the throes of insomnia and reading poetry when, seemingly from nowhere...
I remember being sixteen and the moist summer night spent jaywalking with Nichole and Jan and Melissa through the city's vacant streets. Pleasure was palpable; though, we could not see the stars. Had we managed to get our sweaty hands on something alcoholic to drink? No, I think the free-spiritedness we all felt was another thing altogether. The thrashing exuberance of youth, maybe. If you want to say we were "high on life," well, I won't stop you. Just know that I'd never use such a phrase unironically, myself.

Jan and Melissa were holding hands intermittently. Somewhere in that bizarre fact was a warm, juicy truth we might have hurled endless questions at, any other time. Clearly something was up — not just with them but with all four of us. When she thought no one was paying attention, Melissa raised a slender hand to brush his hair out of his eyes.

There was heavy silence. The shuffling of Jan's feet, Nichole's humming, the occasional buzzing of a street lamp — these were all the sounds we had to buffer us as we roved the empty roads of Midtown after midnight. What more could we need in those moments? Young and free and —

I remember Melissa and Nichole dancing, twirling arm-in-arm around light poles. Their hair, long and straight, flashed alternately raven and strawberry in the sulfurous glow. They spun, and their hair flew horizontal as their laughter spiraled up around the buildings' earnest facades. It bounced from darkened windows of shopfronts, away into the vacuum of the sky. Jan and I watched and listened, all smiles at the girls' silliness. What a perfectly absurd show they put on! Then he looked at me and laughed out, "Sollen wir auch tanzen?" And there we were: spinning around right alongside them.

And I remember the fountain and how Nichole was the first of us to yank off her shoes and step in. Her feet were so small. Under the water, having waded out to the statue of Poseidon at its center, they all but disappeared at the bottoms of her narrow legs. "Come on, Melissa, let's be his nymphs," she shouted, and Melissa crouched for her own shoes. Soon we were all waders in the bronze sea-god's domain, throwing handfuls of water up at one another in loose diamond arcs, pushing each other in the way of burbling spouts, crying out in mock-offense at each splash. Did Nichole and I kiss then? I recall her hair draping like seaweed strands around her small breasts and her breath smelling hotly of spearmint, but nothing more.

From nowhere, then, barreled the black SUV. I remember that part without difficulty. "SECURITY" emblazoned on its doors, the uniformed man who leaped from it was equally capitalized: tall and musclebound and all barked imparatives like, "Get outta there!" Way to wreck the mood, Barney Fife. With a militaristic order for IDs, the four of us, sodden and guilty-looking — why guilty? — made dark blobs of moisture on the concrete beneath us where we sat. Was he actually going to call the police on us? Had we broken the law? We waited for answers.

Two more security vehicles came, each with another overzealous man in uniform, compounding concern. So much fuss over such a tiny thing as joy! Or was it the joy they'd mobilized against? It seemed their way, those mustachioed men with their hissing radios filling our previously peaceful space.

The silence shattered, the mood disemboweled, we were finally given back our identification. And warned. "Go home," they told us. "Go home and go to bed." But we were youth adrift in ourselves, without homes, without beds...
And now I am tired and the charm of my book of poems has been lost, and I let it fall to my chest and let my eyes close, and hope to slip soon into vertiginous sleep, perhaps to dream of a past long passed.

14 March, 2010


I cannot think to write. The pages are blank. What a horrible thing to endure, to feel as though will never, ever end.

Just to think: some people live like this!

20 February, 2010

On the Scarcity of Toilet Paper

[This post, as well as four others from The Pariah's Syntax, was selected by the editors of Meridian, a semi-annual literary journal from the University of Virginia, for publication in their twenty-seventh issue, in May 2011. The other posts to appear in that issue were "Halloween in the Hoosegow," "Only A Fleeting Thing," "In Memory of Monuments," and "Joe." But just because you can read them here doesn't mean that you shouldn't order a copy from Meridian's website, thereby supporting the kind of publication daring enough to print such writings as these.]
Sorry to obliterate those notions of a giant license-plate pressing operation, but about the only thing resembling a vocational opportunity here at Crossroads Correctional Center is the toilet paper factory. I can't be sure Missouri plates are still made by its prison inmates at all; though, I know the state does a thriving trade in sub-sweatshop-quality clothing. In a nifty circle of exploitative reciprocity many suspect is technically illegal, inmates are paid by a state-run (sort of) corporation to manufacture guard uniforms and clothes for inmates to purchase (irregular T-shirts, shorts, thin jackets, and so forth). But that's a topic for another time.

Right now, I am interested in this matter of toilet paper, to wit: my problem with the single-roll rule. Everyone here is issued one roll a week. In the very best circumstances, a person might get by fine with a roll of two-ply every seven days. What, however, is to happen if you catch a nasty cold that has you emptying your headspace of mucus every couple of minutes? Worse yet, what if you contract a foodborne pathogen or parasite the symptoms of which are best left undescribed, lest my gentle reader is currently indulging in a chocolate pudding cup or munching a microwave burrito? For instances of increased necessity such as these, a roll a week will hardly be sufficient.

Consequently, a black market in purloined and smuggled rolls has flourished. Workers from the abovementioned factory stuff whole rolls down the fronts of their pants and pray they're not detected in the end-of-day pat-downs. Inmates with janitorial jobs pull the cardboard tubes from the rolls' centers. They sneak the scrunched-up rolls back to their housing units in insulated plastic coffee mugs for customers who have prepaid. Adjusted to street value, based on the average monthly income of a Missouri prisoner without monetary assistance from the outside, this would be like your paying fifty-eight dollars for a roll of Scott Tissue in a back-alley deal. The TP racketeer can do pretty well for himself, particularly in weeks when the institution serves Salisbury steak. It isn't colloquially known as the "poo patty" for nothing.

Because half-rolls and irregularly-sized ones are regularly thrown out by the factory in large numbers, all this makes even less sense. Sure, inmates can buy the same state-issued tissue from the prison canteen, but only a few of us are actually able to afford to do so. Inmates using up their allotment before week's end are often refused any more, or are given just a small length to work with. The luckiest ones may score a whole new roll from a sympathetic guard. In some housing units, guards regularly give out entire rolls, but only after subjecting the requester's cell to a needlessly thorough search. Wouldn't want anybody getting away with a surplus.

"Nobody thinks about running out of toilet paper," a neighbor of mine once observed. And he has a point. "They buy them big packages of thirty rolls and keep 'em in their closets and grab 'em out whenever they need 'em. What would they think about having to ration out their stuff like this — have to go out, all humble, and be all: 'Yo, can a playa get some shit paper?' No sir, they wouldn't like that one bit."

05 February, 2010

The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Byron Case Now Available

Over the years, several writers have expressed a professional interest in my case. Some thought it would serve as the basis for a dark novel, others were of the opinion that the events called for a strict reportage style, and still others wanted to twist the already grisly truths into some phantasmagoria of sensationalism. Until J. Bennett Allen contacted me through my then-attorney, no one's interest resulted in a published work. Now we have The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Byron Case, a truly in-depth analysis of my experience with the judicial system. Not to mention an eye-opener.

The book's first section is a condensed version of the hundreds and hundreds of transcript pages from my trial. Mister Allen has taken great care to preserve the substance of what was said in the courtroom, while at the same time converting the witness statements into a more natural narrative structure. Afterwards, he takes the reader into the deliberation room with a fictional jury, where everything that was said and shown in trial is discussed and debated in lively detail. The approach presents an intriguing mental exercise in addition to making for a lively read. At the end of Part II, just as a juror would, the reader is asked to weigh the evidence and reach a verdict.

In the end, the outcome of the trial is revealed. This blog's existence ought to merit a spoiler alert for the book, I suppose, but even for those who know the story the book will be enlightening. It will also raise the ire of anybody with a belief in the sanctity of concepts like Justice and Liberty.

The Skeptical Juror is to be a series of books, each focused on a different case of someone for whom there is strong evidence to suggest wrongful conviction. If Mr. Allen's work on this book is any indication, many more incarcerated people can look forward to their cases finally getting the attentive treatment they've always deserved. With a little luck, it just might be a catalyst for the elusive freedom many have waited decades to have returned to them.

I urge you to pick up your copy of The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Byron Case today.

04 February, 2010

Mr. Know-It-All

"Excuse me...." It was someone I'd never spoken to before, yet his approach was awkwardly familiar. He touched my shoulder to get my attention.

I turned, prepared to be chilly with this invader of personal space, but he put up his palms, as if in apology, and said, "I was just wondering who sang 'Wild Thing' — the original. They said you'd know."

Out of nowhere. You'd think a sign on my back glowed neon: ESOTERIC QUESTIONS FIELDED HERE. At some point or another I became a go-to guy for settling of trivia bets, solving of crossword puzzle clues, and unsticking stuck-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue things. It happens numerous times each day, occasionally too often for me to keep track. Granted, those in search of an answer are generally at least tangentially connected to my circle of daily associates, not utter strangers I don't even recognize by reputation.

Reputation is everything in prison. For better or for worse, mine is now cemented as a guru of random information. Yes, I know how many points there are on Kermit the Frog's collar. (Answer: eleven.) Yes, I know the name of that actress who played opposite Tom Cruise in Risky Business, as well as the year the movie came out — though, no, I've never seen the film. (Answers: Rebecca DeMornay; 1986.) Yes, I know the chemical formula of caffeine. (Answer: C8H10N4O2. Would you like me to draw the molecule for you too?) Not a whole lot of my knowledge is practically applicable in the real world. I would dump it if I could, clear some room in my cluttered brain for the type that might do some good. The guys with their inquiries, though, wouldn't want me any other way.

For the stranger with the music question, I didn't miss a beat. "That was the Troggs," I said.

"Of course," he said, making the head-slapping motion I see every day. "And that's with two gs, ain't it?"

"Mmm hmm."

"Okay. Hey, thanks a lot, there, brother," he said, then turned and walked away.

I tried resuming my prior conversation, but it was hopeless; my companion's curiosity had been piqued. He asked the obvious question: "What was that about?"

"Oh, just something I do."

"Answer questions?"


"Does that happen a lot, people coming up to you like that?"

"Pretty often."

"That's a hell of a service. You ought to start charging for that." And not for the first (or the last) time does the thought cross my mind.

29 January, 2010


Ghosts of my fingers linger on the faux glass a moment, then fade. I smile at the chill. The temperature outside is low, but not yet hat-worthy. Good thing; I don't care for hats. Besides, after the week I've had, the wind on my scalp will soothe my overheated gray matter.

I have had cellmates criticize my weather-assessment method. With the Weather Channel just a couple of button-presses away, they think a glance outside and a touch of the cell's tall Lexan window is insufficient. Given the circumstances, it's silly to want to know the current dew point and three-day forecast. Few here own a truly warm coat. There are those, few and far between, who have been locked up since the days when you could order parkas and windbreakers and such. Even so, everyone settles for dressing in a sorry approximation of adequacy for the weather. A tactile check presents me with my binary options: hat/no hat, coat/no coat. It's not quantum mechanics. There aren't even scarves or earmuffs available to complicate the equation.

The charcoal fleece jacket I slide over my shoulders is mainly a symbolic thing — a gesture offering the illusion of choice. At least I can say its pockets are useful. In one I stow my CD player, in the other a couple of discs. My plan for this morning's chilly recreation period involves laying claim to one of the concrete picnic tables at the south end of the yard and watching hawks reel on their thermals for a couple of hours. If the sky offers no hawks, I can always turn my idle observations to the hunched shoulders of shivering loners as they rush along the boulevard. Someone is always en route to somewhere warm, indoors. Comical. As a person who enjoys temperatures below 50°, I am in a minority here, where they revel in the sweltering miasma of summer. The usual frenetic crowds will be absent today, my solitude guaranteed.

There's a piercing beep. From outside the cell comes the indistinct voice on the speaker calling, "Rec!" Everything announced over the speakers here sounds like the trombone-speak of adults on the Peanuts cartoons. It always has. Not even years of daily practice have helped me, nor anyone else, discern what is being said. Intuition and guesswork (and a little luck) lead me and five die-hard handball players toward the door. By the look of things, everyone else is sleeping late.

On the yard, I cross the grass and find the spot I'd been hoping for. I take my seat backward, elbows on the tabletop behind me. It's the sleepers' loss; the morning is a crisp and beautiful one. And with my music to drown out the distant hollow popping of a handball, it feels like it's all mine.

01 January, 2010

The List: Reading Around the World in 2009

My taste in books this past year has been notably inclusive, geographically and culturally speaking. Afghani authors, in particular, are represented prominently, and this makes some sense, given the present reality that regrettably entwines their nation with the US. Political climate notwithstanding, however, there is a universality to human nature that draws me in and fascinates, which is magnified by the otherness of the settings in such books. To learn who we are, we must cast our sights upon others. In them we may see ourselves reflected.

A neighbor in an adjacent cell to mine asked, several months ago, why it was I read so many books about people from different cultures. It wasn't a critical question; he was legitimately curious. I had no ready answer for him except to say that people were sometimes a mystery to me and I endeavored to understand them. Upon reflection, though, I realized: the whole point of reading is to be lifted from our comfort zone and shown a place wholly different from what we know — all without leaving our comfy chair. To always read without this goal misses the point. I am not ashamed to confess the joy I get from escapist hours lost to flipping pages, mind you, but there is so much more to it than entertainment — that crass and artless saccharine for the brain. So much more.

Regular readers of this blog (especially those of you whose queries about this year's reading list started coming in three weeks ago) may note that I have once again failed to meet my annual fifty-title goal. In 2009, I read just forty-one books. Unlike last year, I won't explain it away with specifics. It should suffice to tell you I don't have enough hours in my days. If anyone's got some unused ones lying around, I'm taking up a collection.

* * * * *

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Adam Davies, Goodbye Lemon

Toby Young, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Lyle Estill, Small Is Beautiful: Life in a Local Economy

Nathan Englander, The Ministry of Special Cases

Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach

Michael John Carley, Asperger's from the Inside Out: A Supportive and Practical Guide for Anyone with Asperger's Syndrome

Neil Gaiman, Fragile Things

Jesse Ball, Samedi the Deafness

John Elder Robison, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's

David Mitchell, Black Swan Green

Andrew Miller, Oxygen

Deborah Harkness, The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution

Marilyn Yalom, The American Resting Place: Four Hundred Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds

Barry Lopez, Resistance

Yasmina Khadra, The Attack

Banana Yoshimoto, Goodbye Tsugumi

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Unknown Errors of Our Lives

Chuck Klosterman, Downtown Owl

Charles Wright and David Lehman (editors), The Best American Poetry 2008

Will Self, The Butt

Nelson George and Daphne Carr (editors), Best Music Writing 2008

William Conescu, Being Written

Davy Rothbart (editor), Requiem for a Paper Bag

Trey Hamburger, Ghosts/Aliens

David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames

William Gibson, Burning Chrome

Dobby Gibson, Skirmish

Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Mahvish Rukhsana Khan, My Guantánamo Diary

Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns

Berhard Schlink, The Reader

Patricia T. O'Connor and Stewart Kellerman, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language

Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

Paul Auster, Man in the Dark

Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart

Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life Oscar Wao

Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth

Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated

James Frey, A Million Little Pieces

Michael Chabon and Katrina Kenison (editors), The Best American Short Stories 2005