Farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear:
Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost:
John Milton, Paradise Lost
Low and menacing clouds hung hot and breathless above the red brick compound. Layers of light standards and fence lights would have normally eradicated the foggy darkness and illuminated the perimeter fences, but not on this night. On this night high-pressure sodium lights appeared as yellow globes floating disconnected in no-man’s land. Already the humidity index registered ninety percent, brewing swamp air thick enough to cut with a knife, nearly too dense to allow the fog lights to penetrate. Moisture-laden air swallowed the prowl truck combing the ring road. Sheet lightning tattooed electric blue veins across the blackened sky to illuminate coils of man-slicing razor wire. That hellish fence slinky waited to the flay flesh from those who attempted the sideways-slip-through passage and eviscerate others who performed the stomach-roll-over crossing.
Institutional fluorescent lights flickered, buzzing back to life after a nervous moment as ionized air recovered from being super-heated by half a million volts. Too many more hits on the power grid and the bulls would call a lockdown rather than risk the integrity of the institution’s electronic security features, and a mass exodus from Kent Maximum, British Columbia’s most violent penitentiary.
Behind steel reinforced cement walls, beyond electronically controlled barriers formed from cold-rolled steel, nine men huddled around a plywood table with the inevitable cardboard wad wedged beneath a leg playing Texas Hold ’em. Watching television, exercising, and card-playing were common pastimes. Scheming scenarios to Houdini the high-tech security measures was like completing a crossword puzzle: it gobbled up the hours. Prisoners would do almost anything to combat monotony. Hours earlier, the storm had closed the exercise yard and knocked out the cable television signal. Hank, a well-known rounder eight years into a much longer sentence, had put together the impromptu card game in the gymnasium’s equipment room.
More than a dozen spectators watched from the sidelines. Most owned sculpted chests with thick, heavily muscled arms. Black-inked skin depicted an abundance of skulls, snakes, guns, knives and tribal scrollwork. Cautious onlookers leaned against the cinder block walls to prevent flanking manoeuvres. Other men randomly filtered in and out of the room from the gym where four-on-four floor hockey was underway. Clanging and banging iron resonated from the nearby weight pit, accompanying the storm’s thunderclaps like a Caribbean steel band at a warehouse rave. Bored and storm restless, a tense feeling hung in the air where excitement and danger preceded each exhalation. Just as a human wave swept around a sports stadium, darting glances flowed from person to person in the crowded room.
I owned the unenviable distinction of being the youngest man in the prison. Perhaps my relative youth explained why I could not pinpoint the reason the room felt electrically charged. Anybody tuned into prison life would not deny it, either. It was a feeling without texture. A knowing without context. A hunch that raised the small hairs on the back of the neck. The stuff from which phantoms were born. Penitentiary ghosts. Watchers of Eternity, who arrived on stormy nights to collect their own.
“Garland, your bet. Don’t let the thunder scare you off.”
“You gotta go for a hit n’ miss, Bill? Heard the commissary started selling Depends.”
Bill was served a double life sentence for murdering his wife and the guy she was screwing when he returned home to pick up a forgotten prescription for a misbehaving prostate. The corner of Bill’s mouth twitched toward a grin before his poker face reasserted itself. I reconsidered my cards. Not much to look at. Perhaps I could bluff. Two heartbeats passed and I dismissed the thought. I was new to prison life. A fresh fish without prison cachet, which might be a strategy later on, but not now.
Distorted and cracked, the public address speakers spat out, “Five minutes until movement. Five minutes.”
Every hour, on the hour, for ten minutes, prisoners were permitted to move from their cells to the gymnasium, to the library, to the barbershop and to the chapel. For the other fifty minutes, heavy steel gates and electronic doors remained locked tight.
Loud, booming thunder clashed. Colour drained from my face and my heart shook―an evolutionary response to unexpected loud noises. Lights blinked, then buzzed and fluttered back to life, which reminded me of Egypt and the sound of ordinance exploding during manoeuvres. Once that sound ingrained itself into the brain, it never went away, and it always made me freeze for a split-second to gauge distance, elevation and time to impact by the high-pitched whistle and zoom fifty-pound shells produced as they parted the air. The problem being, once you calculated the impact point, it was too late to avoid the blast radius unless you were already hunkered down forcing yourself not to hold your breath. If caught out in the open, if the glowing globs of burning fragments flung upon impact did not obliterate you, the percussion wave shattered the heart and turned the brain into jelly, atomizing neurons and synapses.
“C’mon Garland. Put up or shut up,” coaxed Bill, three players to my right.
“Fine. I fold.”
“I’m with Garland on South Street South to nowhere else.” Ace mucked his cards into the slush pile. “Does Garland take that long to play chess, Hank?”
“Longer. Soon as I start to nod off, he’ll edge a pawn forward.”
“Eight bucks,” bet Bill.
“I call.” Hank shoved chips into the pot. “Burn and turn the river card, Garland, before the cards decompose.”
Light-hearted chuckles followed as I burned the top card into the slush pile and flipped over the Jack of spades. Three spades, a diamond and a club showed on the table. Hank sat across from me, close enough for me to witness his right eyebrow dip for an instant. Had I not been looking for it, I would have missed it. That was his tell, an unconscious signal that he had made a strong hand. Stalling between bets let me establish baseline behaviour. Deviation from the baseline might be a tell.
Movement behind Hank caught my attention.
The person’s carriage, the way he moved from one position to the next had triggered my scrutiny. Using my peripheral vision I sighted Scott. He received a scruffy five-year-bit for armed robbery. Five years did not normally warrant maximum-security placement, but Scott’s robberies contained violent pistol-whippings that inflicted deep and ugly scars on faces and skulls when cashiers, clerks and bystanders hesitated to immediately follow orders. Parented by an alcoholic father unable to hold down a job, and a heroin-addicted mother who regularly banished him to his room when she brought tricks home, Scott began his criminal career siphoning gasoline to buy clothes and food. Caught in an endless circle of booze and drugs, Scott awoke to slaps and pinches at breakfast with punches and kicks at bedtime. Pure and simple lower city hardscrabble raised on regular portions of ugly and weaned on mean. Scott broke his teeth dealing nickel bags of pot, moved onto petty thieving, break and enter, switched to mugging, and then a predictable graduation into the big leagues via armed robbery.
Drugged out nights riding a whirlwind high induced by sucking on a glass pipe stuffed with ice or shard, cousin to bathtub speed, or feeling sketchy and twitchy after a three-day run, smoking crack cocaine when his preferred shard was unavailable; drunk on whiskey most every other day and night, a hooker on his dime to devour the drugs and to service his carnal needs so long as a wad of twenties and fifties crammed his pockets, described his career path. Waking up hungover, ugly-mean and nasty in some sleazy motel defined his life of hazy stupor and blurry sleaze.
Scott slid out from behind a spectator wearing a stoic expression that hid his intent as though he worked hard to remain unnoticed—trying so hard not to earn attention from anyone that he had drawn mine when he stepped closer to the table. His eyes briefly narrowed when he looked in Hank’s direction. Self-preservation instincts honed by one-hundred thousand years of evolution rang shrilly in my old brain, sometimes called the lizard brain. Scott’s hunting behaviour put my body into alert mode. Deep down an ancient feeling of self-preservation waited to act.
“Check to you.”
“Pot odds,” announced Hank. “Forty-five bucks.”
“I call,” replied Bill. “Read ’em and weep. Set of Johnnies out for a night on the town.”
“Trip Johnnies. Ouch. That’s a nice hand,” noted Hank before revealing a spade flush, “just not as nice as my Alabama whore house.”
Bill moaned his loss. Ace, who sat on my left, nodded knowingly. Hank reached out with both hands to rake in his winnings. Movement caught my eye. An aluminum baseball bat smacked Hank on the top of his head! Blood sprayed the table, splattering the front of my shirt. Spectators closest to the event cleared gladiator space around Hank and Scott. Most men immediately evacuated the room, bumping shoulders on the way out the door, scurrying out of sight quicker than prairie dogs dodged a diving hawk.
Cocked above his head, two-handing it, the bat descended. Skin and hair folded around the bat’s pale metal contours as it sank past bone and into brain matter. Catastrophic pressure on Hank’s eyeballs forced them to flare and to bulge; now flashed with crimson and blue veins, stretched to capacity. Now beyond, bursting and squirting ocular jelly to join blood and brains splatting the table with a sickening “ulch,” like a boot pulled from wet mud.
Ace grabbed my shirt collar and jerked me backwards. Without realizing it, I had gained my feet and stood with my hands raised protectively waiting for the bat to make a threatening move in my direction. Most men had backed away from the carnage or they had frozen in place. Regret that I had not leapt forward to stop the second swing swept across my thoughts. Two players on Hank’s right had moved so quickly they had fallen backwards out of their chairs and were picking themselves up off the floor.
Ace said, “Move Garland! Wipe your face with the sheet. Don’t run. Walk as if nothing is wrong. Don’t let the bottle ’n stoppers notice anything when we pass the security bubble. Keep your head down.”
“Wait! Hank. Shouldn’t we―”
“There ain’t no Hank no more. Unless you want to catch a court case, keep walking. Deep-six your shirt down the shitter when we hit the range. Even if the bulls call lockup, hustle into the shower. We’ve got five minutes before they do a punch.”
Ace walked on my left, shielding my bloody shirt as much as possible from the ever-present cameras. Guards wearing .38 snub-nosed revolvers staffed security bubbles behind thick safety glass where they scrutinized control boards crowded with blinking red, green and amber lights. Others eyeballed prisoners, scanning them for bulges that might indicate a weapon. Mostly they looked for prisoners wearing big green winter parkas in summer. Anything out of the ordinary. Creativity played a nearly non-existent part of their job description unless it pertained to keeping themselves amused sitting in a chair pushing the same seven or eight buttons forty hours a week. Male staff were often hired for their size, although staff recruiters denied that accusation claiming education and temperament, and not physical attributes, were preferred traits. And the Easter Bunny delivered chocolate eggs to prisoners.
Our knot of flesh flowed past the security post without raising alarm. There were men in front of us, more behind. Blood and jelly stained my shirt. Bill took point once we cleared the post, running interference to make it difficult for anyone to sight my bloody front. We entered a long hallway. Lightning X-rayed the air, burning through it. Deafening thunder peeled, knocking out the lights. When they stuttered back to life, we had turned another corner and had stepped onto the living range.
“Looooock-up!” ordered the public address. “Emergency count. All prisoners immediately return to their cells. Emergency lockup.”
Men hustled cell-to-cell gathering packages of Mr. Noodles, cans of tuna purchased from the prison canteen, any food they could lay hands on. Others traded girly magazines and pocketbooks to endure twenty-four-hour isolation in a seven-by-ten-foot cell for who-knew-how-long while the authorities conducted the investigation, during which time guards distributed plastic trays of semi-warm food, but mostly cold meals where gravy and pancake syrup congealed into a skin. The prison could be locked down for weeks, forcing men to take birdbaths in the cell’s stainless-steel sink that may have held a half-gallon of tepid water. Engaged with the routine rigmarole of prepping for lockdown, no one paid attention as I slid into the shower after flushing my shirt down an institutional strength toilet that would swallow a small village and not burp twice.
As shampoo poured into my hand, I saw Hank’s eyeballs bulge. Though I had served three years in the military, witnessed bloody spectacles and broken bones, I had yet to witness close-up cold-cut violence of that calibre. Had never felt the rush of adrenaline that ignited every synapse and nerve in the brain and body, which heightened smell, sight and hearing. Never experienced the violent indecision that tried to freeze limbs and cogent thought. There would be worse episodes in the years to come, but I could not know that, not when I had served less than one year of an eighteen-year stretch.
* * * * * * *
Damp-wet-crumpled bed sheets wallpapered my skin, sculpting my body in a cotton cocoon when I awoke trembling in my apartment. Usually, I felt thirsty and needed to piss. On most nights, bulging eyeballs catapulted me to wakefulness. Jackknifed straight up. Arms raised. Fists balled. Seldom did I recall stepping into the shower. Sometimes I would see a non-descript face with empty eye sockets. At others a broken neck or a skull caved in like rotten cantaloupe, but I never recognized Hank without his eyes. Not once. Not ever. Night terrors now arrived more frequently and with added intensity. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder penance. For the life I had taken in that alley, on that pivotal night when all joy turned sour, now thirteen years earlier.
During my years inside the cement and steel leviathan, I had viewed more gruesome spectacles than Hank’s fast and dirty baseball batting, had witnessed gory, flesh sliced and diced incidents that bespoke to how little life meant to men who had nothing to lose, and even less to gain in an animalistic existence, but it was Hank’s face that refused to stop replaying itself. Quantum mechanics and space/time conjoined to return me in perpetuity to that event.
On other evenings, I relived the night I had killed one man and put a second in the hospital. Those were the nights I woke up shouting and screaming, woke up straining and jerking, trying in vain to stay my hands before I ruptured life. It was as though a puppeteer controlled my limbs, reducing me to a spectator repeatedly forced to watch and to listen as bones cracked and snapped. Prior to that night, horror was just a movie at the theatre. Now it was real and it dwelled inside me.One year ago, today, having served twelve years behind bars, Parole Board Canada granted me statutory parole. It made no difference where I slept, in prison or in my apartment. Night terrors found me. Parole does not serve up freedom. Memory exacts penance the conscience must pay with nightly interest. I never knew what pain was until I did, and now it won’t stop.