31 October, 2017

Halloween in the Hoosegow IV: Rise of the Octoberfeast Cult

Wolf slammed bones at his usual table, howling every time he scored. Batty flitted around the wing, searching for someone to bleed, the mooch. Some poor wretch wailed a forlorn dirge. The zombies trudged in circles. It seemed like just another evening in B-Wing of Housing Unit 3.

I was on the phone 1 discussing matters inconsequential with a friend. Idly, the way one does in voice-only conversations, I glanced about. The nothing-spectacle held little of interest, just the usual skulking creatures, the gargoyles peering from their vantage, and the ghosts of men drifting through my sight. Then there came, from the shadow of a doorway, two pale men.

Leading, looking chronically unrested, was the one of average build. His backswept black hair vaguely reminded me of some unplaceable movie star. His portly peon wriggled up the staircase behind him, protectively hunched over something gathered in the hem of his shirt. I thought of a child afraid that her skirtful of freshly picked daisies might blow away in an errant wind.

Both men reached my door at the top of the stairs, knocked, and sneaked sidewise looks in my direction. What was this? My mild amusement gave way to nascent suspicion.

Doyle, my cellmate, opened the door and they spoke. His expression, as he apprehended whatever the Grub's shirt held, bespoke doubt. The three of them turned my direction, said a few additional words, then averted their gaze again. It was starting to feel like a conspiracy, unfolding right before my eyes.

The Grub stepped into my cell. He re-emerged in a moment, shirt empty. I said goodbye to my friend.

We passed on the steps, the odd pair and I. The tired-looking superior smirked in response to my inquisitive look, exposing a single gleaming canine, but he said not a word. When I entered, Doyle, bewildered, was arranging several tiny heads on the desk.

"They heard you're into Halloween," Doyle said. He rotated an origami skull to face us. "The movies, the candy — they know about the nachos, Byron."

"Then these are an offering."

Doyle nodded. "Seems so. You gonna let 'em in?"

Dawn was hours away when I tracked them down, the men who left the heads. Bobby's eyebrow peaked and the Grub's cheeks plumped with a smile at my approach.

"We knew you liked Halloween," Bobby explained.

"Like, that you were super into it," added the Grub, obviously alluding to my infamous All Hallows Eve ritual.

"Well," I said, "I can't say I ever decorated my cell before. Besides putting up whatever Halloween cards I get from friends."

"We got this book of origami monsters — witches, demons, dragons. It's pretty cool." Bobby hiked his thumb at his larval companion. "All he's been able to make are the heads, though."

"The scarecrow's fucking impossible," the Grub said, scooting his wireframes up the bridge of his tiny nose.

"I draw the faces, then stitch the loop of string on top. We hang ours along our shelf, like little sombrero dingle-balls."

If they were trying to bribe their way into my Halloween-Night Nachorama, I thought, this was a soft pitch. Neither mentioned candy, chips, or Brett, the mutual acquaintance who no doubt spilled the beans to them about last year's celebration. (Although, anyone else might have. The whole wing witnessed us transporting his half of the feast like a corpse, on a beach-towel improvised stretcher.) Theirs seemed like genuine love for the holiday.

The Grub intimated that he had more decorations coming in the mail. Cardstock window dressing. He offered to share some with me, "Y'know, if you want."

I did want.

Bouncing around to Oingo Boingo's "Dead Man's Party," I scattered olive slices. Above the desk dangled six grotesque little boxy heads on orange thread — a werewolf, a ghost, a reptilian beast, a rawhead zombie, a skull, and a ghoulish scarecrow. From the wall leered a magazine clipping of a Chris Mars painting. A paper cutout jack-o'-lantern seemed to laugh at the obscene size of my culinary monster.

This was the year of the largest nacho spread yet, big enough that one could use it as a crunchy bean-and-cheese-filled pillow. The Grub wriggled expectantly, hungrily watching me put on the finishing touches. In his fingers, the sheet that he and Bobby would use to move their third of this massive undertaking downstairs. Bobby and Doyle chatted about their hopes for tonight's American Horror Story. It did feel like a party.

I drizzled a perfect white zigzag of ranch dressing. Brett arrived.

"It's candy pizza," he told us, passing out everyone's container of his own outrageous invention. "The crust is graham crackers and vanilla wafers."

I inspected it through the plastic. "Peanut butter cups, Butterfinger, peanuts, M&Ms…. Are those jelly beans?" Brett nodded.

"I used Hershey's syrup, too. The white stuff is melted ice cream."

"You're a madman."

A neighbor peeked over everyone's shoulders to see what the fuss was about. "Holy shit," he laughed. "Y'all are goin' crazy with this Halloween thing."

Bobby wielded his menacing eyebrows. "You could join us…"

"Yessssss," I hissed. "We demand only the smallest sacrifice."

The neighbor vamoosed, and we descended on our frightful victuals.

24 October, 2017

A Tragedy at Twenty: Justin Bruton

Twenty years after he blindsided everyone by sending a shotgun slug through his own skull, Justin Bruton is as much a cypher to me as ever, despite reams of police reports and the fact that there was a time, in the months prior to his terrible suicide, when I called him my best friend. Obviously, I didn't know what friendship really was.

Eighteen and socially handicapped, your "best friend" is the person who finally accepts you unquestioningly. Justin saw past my black-and-white screen-starlet makeup, conflation of funny ha-ha with funny strange, and adeptness at conversation equivalent to how well a three-year-old ballroom dances. He shrugged this stuff off and invited me to come throw powdered donuts at rich people. You know, what best friends do.

Look at the perpetual adolescents of Jackass, The Dudesons, and Can't Kill Yourself: lots of boys play rough. It could be that Justin wasn't trying to put out my eye when he embedded that blowdart in my brow from a few feet away. Maybe this was how he channeled his fraternal affection, through acts of minor violence. What to make, though, of his pain experiments, when he laughed in disbelief at my silent responses to various stimuli he administered — thumbtacks colorfully studding my forearm, hydrochloric acid drops eating the flesh of my open palm, electric shocks to wherever he could reach out and touch with his stun gun? Were these forerunners to the sado-motivational tactics of Tyler Durden, in Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, or were they nothing more than cruelty to a trusting younger kid?

What did I know about Justin? At the time, virtually nothing. I knew that he'd lived in Tulsa and come from money. He disdained familial meddling yet depended on his parents for literally everything. He had a sister, my age. He once dated a girl who seemed cool, the first and only time we met, but whose name I subsequently forgot. He'd been suicidal on multiple occasions and was prescribed Prozac for depression. He dug PJ Harvey, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and French surrealist films. There was undoubtedly more to him, but this was all that he was willing to reveal.

Similarly, whatever his feelings about Anastasia, his girlfriend of maybe seven months, I was privy to only their external effects. The couple's countless arguments became almost normal, given his hot-and-cold affections, her fixed and potent passion. Justin never verbalized his feelings, for Anastasia or anything else of consequence. I'm unsure how much of that reticence was symptomatic of his unhappiness, and how much led him to collude with her to bring about their deaths.

So: Justin Bruton, question mark. Interested organizations with resources and authority far outstripping mine have looked into solving the riddle and come back empty-handed. His family won't talk, out of some sense of Southern propriety, embarrassment, fear, or snobbery — which doesn't help. The sole insight that I've gained since his death is that he'd been born in Texas. Thanks, Internet, for nothing.

Justin Bruton was my friend — or "friend." What's that even mean? Together we watched some great movies, had a few laughs, debated political and ethical systems, sang a few stupid songs, took memorable road trips, and drank too much coffee while daydreaming of lives with meaning. The way things ended up for me, though, leaves no doubt that our association was far from meaningless.

23 October, 2017

A Tragedy at Twenty: Anastasia WitbolsFeugen

Anastasia died at eighteen, twenty years ago today. She'd been a clever, spirited girl. In school she joined the National Junior Honor Society, Latin club, and academic competitions of all sorts. A couple of months before her untimely death, she started classes at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. The world had been her oyster.

A different version of the truth is less palatable.

Anastasia died at eighteen, twenty years ago today. She'd been a temperamental depressive for at least a year. In her diary and in e-mails to close friends, she romanticized death, expressed emotional volatility somewhat greater than typical teenage impulsivity, and fixated on a fickle boyfriend. For weeks before her seemingly inevitable death, she spiraled into a textbook example of suicidal behaviors, isolating herself, dropping out of college, and talking openly (and often) about killing herself. She didn't stand a chance in this indifferent world.

The dead have it easy — their reputations are projections of might-have-been, forever idealized, unburdened by their foibles or survivors' beliefs that anything but the best had been in store for the beloved deceased. The culture fetishizes potential. While those who die young remain for all time in grace, the living must forge our legacies through successes and failures — the actual.

Which is fine. Whitewashing who Anastasia WitbolsFeugen was wouldn't be terrible, just an anodyne comfort, except that another life hangs in the balance between her pristine reputation — Anastasia, the young light extinguished too soon — and the ugly alternative — Anastasia, the doomed soul. Mine is no longer young but had (and still has) potential at least equal to hers. By not allowing her to be seen from less-flattering angles, her eulogizers obscure the truth that contradicts the righteousness of my imprisonment.

Anastasia was my friend. We hung out in coffeehouses, discussing our naive ideals and cackling at life's absurdities. We went to movies together. We lent each other books that we each considered essential reading. We commiserated about shittiness and shared the happiness that kept us going. When she died, it was like no grief I'd yet known. I struggled to cope, to keep myself together in the aftermath. Even in that confused state, I clearly saw that the Anastasia portrayed by the funeral sentiments was a caricature, largely unrecognizable to many of us at the service. Frankly, she was no one special. The Anastasia we knew was complex, flawed, and passionate to a fault — a person we all thought eminently worth being friends with.

After two decades lived in the shadow of her death, having matured and made discoveries against which ordinary relationships are immune, I'm now less sure of my friendship with her. Personal documents seized during the authorities' homicide investigation showed me yet another facet of Anastasia. She lied about people behind their backs. She engineered squabbles between friends, probably for drama's sake. She had terrible self-esteem and vied for attention at every opportunity. Her flaws go on and on. She was, after all, only human.

Teenage relations, those gossipy, mercurial, emotionally heightened filters that distort one's world like the wildest Instagram effect — they don't even begin to explain why the night we parted ways struck me as both perfectly typical and utterly unexpected. Knowing what I now do is similarly befuddling. Was her death planned? If so, by whom — her or Justin, or by both, mutually? Either she wanted him, her flaky, intermittent love, to put her out of her misery, or she intended to do the deed herself with him looking on. Or, just as they decided one day to pack and move to New Orleans by the weekend, the two of them might've intended, with no plan whatsoever, to wing it, take a gun to a cemetery, one after the other welcoming oblivion.

So much for the pretty notion that there are no secrets between friends.

Ten years back, I wrote in this post about Anastasia's death, "the ever-widening wake of her death laps onward, continuing to rock and capsize in spite of the distance. Meanwhile, her memory on our horizon gradually melds with the glare of the sun." Pretty words for the gruesome results of teenage self-centeredness. I can't muster this kind of poetry for it anymore. Anastasia WitbolsFeugen died, but I'm the one who's rotting.

13 October, 2017

Quit Smoking... or Your Prison Job

I saw word of the lawsuit's results before the memo about them was posted to the wing's bulletin board. I was relieved.
Subject: Notice of Tobacco Ban

As part of a settlement agreement in an offender lawsuit, the Department of Corrections has agreed to implement a policy banning the sale, possession and use of all tobacco products, e-cigarettes and vaping devices inside correctional buildings and on the grounds inside the correctional perimeter. The only exceptions to this ban will be for authorized religious purposes. The effective date of this ban will be April 1, 2018.
No more sudden windpipe closings, then, as I happen to walk through someone's noxious cloud en route to breakfast. No more fretting, before a cell move, over how I'll breathe if my new cellmate's a smoker. No more annoyance at being touched by stinky hands when a guard pulls his cigarette out of his mouth just long enough to call me over for a random pat-search.

Of course, there are rumbles of discontent. I've heard prisoners discussing how they'll stash their tobacco to forestall the inevitable (see my 2010 post about illicit tobacco use if you need this explained). More of the grumbling is being done by staff members, however. And I guess that I get a part of their argument: they're just working a job here and don't deserve to be penalized. But at the same time, there are tons of things that people can't do on the job, which no one complains about because, for instance, no one wants to hear some coworker's seven-hour acid jazz playlist blaring from speakers around his neck. At least acid-jazz guy's particular brand of workplace pollution won't give you a disease.

My cellmate, Doyle, told me about a guard posted at his work site, a man I've seen around here forever, who's been bragging about his "perfect solution" to this tobacco ban. The guy's made countless attempts at quitting smoking over the years; it's never worked longer than a week. Now that the DOC's taking his smoke breaks away (meaning they're leaving him no excuse to fuck off 80% of the workday), he's just going to retire. It isn't a joke, he's really planning to throw in the towel. In a bizarre way, I admire his level of commitment.

Working for the Department of Corrections, at least as a guard, has got to be an intensely boring job. Maybe at other prisons, in states where gang activity and rampant violence factor more heavily, there is little down time — but here? One sees staff, in front of the housing units and outside of the central services building, wreathed in clouds of smoke and vapor more often than one doesn't. What happens when this tiny pleasurable distraction from their tedium is taken? Will they give up and vamoose to some alternative place of employ, or will they stay, tough it out, and vent their nicotine withdrawal irritation inappropriately? I'm betting on the latter.

10 October, 2017

Ghost Story

There was a girl with beautifully sculpted eyebrows who worked at the neighborhood donut shop. It wasn't love because I didn't really know anything about her: she lived alone in a sad Missouri town, sold knives door-to-door on weekends, and drove a 1986 Dodge Omni. That's practically nothing.

Certain days, I walked to the shop right as she was closing up. While she talked, I held the thirty-gallon trash bag for her to dump that day's donuts in. The pieces of her life that she shared were sweeter to me than all of that wasted icing — like that her favorite thing on rainy nights was to climb atop her trailer home and lie so the falling water in her face felt like being propelled skyward, to the clouds.

One night she invited me to her place. I was fifteen and had no car. We clattered along rural roads in incomprehensible darkness until turning up her long gravel drive, then there it was: her boxy hideaway in the weedy field. Inside were stacks of Dickinson and Plath, a saggy couch, some records, and a tidy kitchenette where she made us herbal tea and smiled at my earnest attention. I silently hoped for rain.

She gave me a blanket but my rest on the couch was fitful. After what felt like hours she called from the bedroom, a soft voice, somehow pained. I went, unsure, and held her. This was all that she wanted. “You’re safe,” she murmured. It didn't occur to me, the number of meanings this could have.

In the insect-riddled morning she took me back. A lingering hug, after which she shrank into herself and disappeared from my life as quietly as she entered it.