During my adolescence, despite being exposed to television documentaries depicting men with weightlifter chests and arms, wearing ponytails and wife-beater undershirts, their bodies spangled with homemade tattoos, any mention of prison always brought to my mind a less vainglorious type of criminal, an image derived, I believe, from characters in the old black-and-white movies that prior to the advent of the infomercial tended to dominate television's early morning hours: smallish, gray-looking men in work shirts and loose-fitting trousers, miscreants whoalthough oppressed by screws and wardens, victimized by their fellowsmanaged to express, however inarticulately, a noble endurance, a working-class vitality and poetry of soul. Without understanding anything else, I seemed to understand their crippled honor, their Boy Scout cunning, their Legionnaire's willingness to suffer. I felt in them the workings of a desolate beatitude, some secret virtue of insularity whose potentials they alone had mastered.
Nothing in my experience intimated that such men now or ever had existed as other than a fiction, yet they embodied a principle of anonymity that spoke to my sense of style, and so when I entered the carceral system at the age of fifteen, my parents having concluded that a night or two spent in the county lock-up might address my aggressive tendencies, I strived to present a sturdy, unglamorous presence among the mesomorphs, the skin artists and the flamboyantly hirsute. During my first real stretch, a deuce in minimum security for Possession With Intent, I lifted no weights and adopted no yard name. Though I wore a serpent-shaped earring, a gift from a girlfriend, I indulged in no further self-decoration. I neither swaggered nor skulked, but went from cell to dining hall to my prison job with the unhurried deliberation of an ordinary man engaged upon his daily business, and I resisted, thanks to my hostility toward every sort of authority, therapy sessions designed to turn me inward, to coerce an analysis of the family difficulties and street pressures that had nourished my criminality, with the idea of liberating me from my past. At the time I might have told you that my resistance was instinctive. Psychiatrists and therapy: these things were articles of fashion, not implements of truth, and my spirit rejected them as impure. Today, however, years down the line from those immature judgments, I suspect my reaction was partially inspired by a sense that any revelation yielded by therapy would be irrelevant to the question, and that I already knew in my bones what I now know pit to pole: I was born to this order.
While I was down in Vacaville, two years into a nickel for armed robbery, I committed the offense that got me sent to Diamond Bar. What happened was this. They had me out spraying the bean fields, dressed in protective gear so full of holes that each day when I was done, I would puke and sweat as if I had been granted a reprieve and yanked from the gas chamber with my lungs half full of death. One afternoon I was sitting by the access road, goggles around my neck, tank of poison strapped to my shoulders, waiting for the prison truck, when an old Volkswagen bus rattled up from the main gate and stopped. On the sliding panel was a detail from a still life by Caravaggio, a rotting pear lopsided on a silver tray; on the passenger door, a pair of cherubs by Titian. Other images, all elements of famous Italian paintings, adorned the roof, front, and rear. The driver peered down at me. A dried-up, sixtyish man in a work shirt, balding, with a mottled scalp, a hooked nose, and a gray beard bibbing his chest. A blue-collar Jehovah. "You sick?" he asked, and waggled a cell phone. "Should I call somebody?"
"Fuck are you?" I asked. "The Art Fairy?"
"Frank Ristelli," he said without resentment. "I teach a class in painting and sculpture every Wednesday."
"Those who can't, teach
A patient look. "Why would you say that?"
"'Cause the perspective on your Titian's totally fucked."
"It's good enough for you to recognize. How do you know Titian?"
"I studied painting in college. Two years. People in the department thought I was going to be a hot-shit artist."
"Guess you fooled them, huh?"
He was mocking me, but I was too worn out to care. "All that college pussy," I said. "I couldn't stay focused."
"And you had places to rob, people to shoot. Right?"
That kindled my anger, but I said nothing. I wondered why he was hanging around, what he wanted of me.
"Have you kept it up? You been drawing?"
"I mess around some."
"If you'd like, I'd be glad to take a look. Why don't you bring me what you've been doing next Wednesday?"
I shrugged. "Sure, yeah. I can do that."
"I'll need your name if I'm going to hook you up with a pass."
"Tommy Penhaligon," I said.
Ristelli wrote it down on a note pad. "Okay
Tommy. Catch you Wednesday." With that, he put the van in gear and rattled off to the land of the free, his pluming exhaust obscuring my view of the detail from a Piero della Francesca painted on the rear.
Of course, I had done no drawing for years, but I sensed in Ristelli the potential for a sweet hustle. Nothing solid, but you develop a nose for these things. With this in mind, I spent the following week sketching a roachlikely it was several different roaches, but I preferred to think of it as a brother inmate with a felonious history similar to my own. I drew that roach to death, rendering him in a variety of styles ranging from realism to caricature. I ennobled him, imbued him with charisma, invoked his humble, self-abnegatory nature. I made him into an avatar among roaches, a roach with a mission. I crucified him and portrayed him distributing Oreo crumbs to the faithful. I gave him my face, the face of a guard to whom I had a particular aversion, the faces of several friends, including that of Carl Dimassio, who supplied the crank that kept me working straight through the nights. I taped the drawings on the wall and chuckled with delight, amazed by my cleverness. On the night before Ristelli's class, so wasted that I saw myself as a tragic figure, a savage with the soul of an artist, I set about creating a violent self-portrait, a hunched figure half buried in blackness, illuminated by a spill of lamplight, curled around my sketch pad like a slug about a leaf, with a harrowed face full of weakness and delirium, a construction of crude strokes and charred, glaring eyes, like the face of a murderer who has just understood the consequences of his act. It bore only a slight resemblance to me, but it impressed Ristelli.
"This is very strong," he said of the self-portrait. "The rest of them"he gestured at the roach drawings"they're good cartoons. But this is the truth."
Rather than affecting the heightened stoicism that convicts tend to assume when they wish to demonstrate that they have not been emotionally encouraged, I reacted as might a prisoner in one of the movies that had shaped my expectations of prison and said with boyish wonderment, "Yeah
you think?," intending by this to ruffle the sensibilities of Ristelli's inmate assistant, a fat, ponytailed biker named Marion Truesdale, aka Pork, whose arms were inked with blue, circusy designs, the most prominent being a voluptuous naked woman with the head of a demon, and whose class work, albeit competent, tended to mirror the derivative fantasy world of his body art. In the look that passed between us then was all I needed to know about the situation: Pork was telling me that he had staked out Ristelli and I should back the fuck off. But rather than heeding the warning, I concentrated on becoming Ristelli's star pupil, the golden apple in a barrel of rotten ones. Over the next months, devoting myself to the refinement of my gift, I succeeded to such a degree that he started keeping me after class to talk, while Porkhis anger fermentingcleaned palette knives and brushes.
Much of what I said to Ristelli during that time was designed to persuade him of the deprivation I faced, the lack of stimulation that was neutering my artistic spirit, all with an eye toward convincing him to do a little smuggling for me. Though he sympathized with my complaints, he gave no sign that he was ripe to be conned. He would often maneuver our conversation into theoretical or philosophical directions, and not merely as related to art. It seemed he considered himself my mentor and was attempting to prepare me for a vague future in which I would live if not totally free, then at least unconstrained by spiritual fetters. One day when I described myself in passing as having lived outside the law, he said, "That's simply not so. The criminal stands at the absolute heart of the law."
He was perched on a corner of an old scarred desk jammed into the rear of the art room, nearly hidden by the folded easels leaning against it, and I was sitting with my legs stretched out in a folding chair against the opposite wall, smoking one of Ristelli's Camels. Pork stood at the sink, rinsing brushes in linseed oil, shoulders hunched, radiating enmity, like a sullen child forbidden the company of his elders.
"'Cause we're inside?" I asked. "That what you're saying?"
"I'm talking about criminals, not just prisoners," Ristelli said. "The criminal is the basis for the law. Its inspiration, its justification. And ultimately, of course, its victim. At least in the view of society."
"How the hell else can you view it?"
"Some might see incarceration as an opportunity to learn criminal skills. To network. Perhaps they'd rather be elsewhere, but they're inside, so they take advantage. But they only take partial advantage. They don't understand the true nature of the opportunity."
I was about to ask for an explanation of this last statement, but Pork chose the moment to ask Ristelli if he needed any canvases stretched.
Ristelli said, "Why don't you call it a day. I'll see you next week."
Aiming a bleak look in my direction, Pork said, "Yeah
all right," and shambled out into the corridor.
"The criminal and what he emblematizes
," Ristelli went on. "The beast. Madness. The unpredictable. He's the reason society exists. Thus the prison system is the central element of society. Its defining constituency. Its model." He tapped a cigarette out of his pack and made a twirling gesture with it. "Who runs this place?"
"Vacaville? Fucking warden."
"The warden!" Ristelli scoffed at the notion. "He and the guards are there to handle emergencies. To maintain order. They're like the government. Except they have much less control than the President and the Congress. No taxes, no regulations. None that matter, anyway. They don't care what you do, so long as you keep it quiet. Day to day it's cons who run the prisons. There are those who think a man's freer inside than out in the world."
"You sound like an old lifer."
Bemused, Ristelli hung the cigarette from his lower lip, lit up and let smoke flow out from his mouth and nostrils.
"Fuck you know about it, anyway?" I said. "You're a free man."
"You haven't been listening."
"I know I should be hanging on your every goddamn word. Just sometimes it gets a little deep, y'know." I pinched the coal off the tip of the Camel and pocketed the butt. "What about the death penalty, man? If we're running things, how come we let 'em do that shit?"
"Murderers and the innocent," Ristelli said. "The system tolerates neither."
It seemed I understood these words, but I could not abide the thought that Ristelli's bullshit was getting to me, and instead of pursuing the matter, I told him I had things to do and returned to my cell.
I had been working on a series of portraits in charcoal and pastel that depicted my fellow students in contemplative poses, their brutish faces transfigured by the consideration of some painterly problem, and the next week after class, when Ristelli reviewed my progress, he made mention of the fact that I had neglected to include their tattoos. Arms and necks inscribed with barbed wire bracelets, lightning bolts, swastikas, dragons, madonnas, skulls; faces etched with Old English script and dripping with black tearsin my drawings they were unadorned, the muscles cleanly rendered so as not to detract from the fraudulent saintliness I was attempting to convey. Ristelli asked what I was trying for, and I said, "It's a joke, man. I'm turning these mutts into philosopher-kings."
"Royalty have been known to wear tattoos. The kings of Samoa, for instance."
"You don't like tattoos?"
"I'd sooner put a bone through my nose."
Ristelli began unbuttoning his shirt. "See what you think of this one."
"That's okay," I said, suspecting now Ristelli's interest in my talent had been prelude to a homosexual seduction; but he was already laying bare his bony chest. Just above his right nipple, a bit off-center, was a glowing valentine heart, pale rose, with a gold banner entangling its pointy base, and on the banner were words etched in dark blue: The Heart Of The Law. The colors were so soft and pure, the design so simple, it seemeddespite its contrast to Ristelli's pallid skina natural thing, as if chance had arranged certain inborn discolorations into a comprehensible pattern; but at the moment, I was less aware of its artistic virtues than of the message it bore, words that brought to mind what Ristelli had told me a few days before.
"The heart of the law," I said. "This mean you done crime? You're a criminal?"
"You might say I do nothing else."
"Oh, yeah! You're one of the evil masters. Where'd you get the tattoo?"
"A place called Diamond Bar."
The only Diamond Bar I'd heard of was a section of LA populated mainly by Asians, but Ristelli told me it was also the name of a prison in northern California where he had spent a number of years. He claimed to be among the few ever to leave the place.
"It's unlikely you've met anyone who's done time there," he said. "Until now, that is. Not many are aware of its existence."
"So it's a supermax? Like Pelican Bay? The hell you do to get put someplace like that?"
"I was a fool. Like you, stupidity was my crime. But I was no longer a fool when I left Diamond Bar."
There was in his voice an evangelical tremor, as if he were hearkening back to the memory of god and not a prison cell. I'd come to realize he was a strange sort, and I wondered if the reason he had been released might be due to some instability developed during his sentence. He started to button his shirt, and I studied the tattoo again.
"Doesn't look like a jailhouse tat
'least none I ever saw," I said. "Doesn't even look like ink, the colors are so clean."
"The colors come from within," Ristelli said with the pious aplomb of a preacher quoting a soothing text. "There are no jails."
· · · · ·
That conversation stayed with me. If Ristelli was not certifiably a whacko, I assumed he was well along the road; yet while he had given me no concrete information about Diamond Bar, the commingling of passion and firmness in his voice when he spoke of the place seemed evidence not of an unbalanced mind but of profound calm, as if it arose from a pivotal certainty bred in a quieter emotional climate than were most prison-bred fanaticisms. I believed everything he said was intended to produce an effect, but his motives did not concern me. The idea that he was trying to manipulate me for whatever purpose implied that he needed something from me, and this being the case, I thought it might be an opportune time to make my needs known to him.
I assumed that Pork understood how the relationship between Ristelli and me was developing. To discourage him from lashing out at me, I hired a large and scarily violent felon by the name of Rudy Wismer to watch my back in the yard, at meals, and on the block, paying for his services with a supply of the X-rated Japanese comics that were his sexual candy. I felt confident that Wismer's reputation would give Pork pausemy bodyguard's most recent victim, a bouncer in a Sacramento night club, had testified at trial wearing a mask that disguised the ongoing reconstruction of his facial features; but on the Wednesday following our discussion of tattoos, Ristelli took sick midway through class and was forced to seek medical attention, leaving Pork and me alone in the art room, the one place where Wismer could not accompany me. We went about our cleaning chores in different quarters of the room; we did not speak, but I was aware of his growing anger, and when finally, without overt warning, he assaulted me, I eluded his initial rush and made for the door, only to find it locked and two guards grinning at me through the safety glass.
Pork caught hold of my collar, but I twisted away, and for a minute or so I darted and ducked and feinted as he lumbered after me, splintering easels, scattering palettes and brushes, tromping tubes of paint, overturning file cabinets. Before long, every obstacle in the room had been flattened and, winded, I allowed myself to be cornered against the sink. Pork advanced on me, his arms outspread, swollen cheeks reddened by exertion, huffing like a hog in heat. I prepared for a last and likely ineffective resistance, certain that I was about to take a significant beating. Then, as Pork lunged, his front foot skidded in the paint oozing from a crushed tube of cadmium orange, sending him pitching forward, coming in too low; at the same time, I brought my knee up, intending to strike his groin but landing squarely on his face. I felt his teeth go and heard the cartilage in his nose snap. Moaning, he rolled onto his back. Blood bubbled from his nostrils and mouth, matted his beard. I ignored the guards, who now were shouting and fumbling for their keys, and, acting out of a cold, pragmatic fury, I stood over Pork and smashed his kneecaps with my heel, ensuring that for the remainder of his prison life he would occupy a substantially diminished rank in the food chain. When the guards burst into the room, feeling charmed, blessed by chance, immune to fate, I said, "You assholes betting on this? Did I cost you money? I fucking hope so!" Then I dropped to the floor and curled into a ball and waited for their sticks to come singing through the air.
· · · · ·
Six days later, against all regulation, Frank Ristelli visited me in the isolation block. I asked how he had managed this, and dropping into his yardbird Zen mode, he said, "I knew the way." He inquired after my healththe guards had rapped me around more than was usualand after I assured him nothing was broken, he said, "I have good news. You're being transferred to Diamond Bar."
This hardly struck me as good news. I understood how to survive in Vacaville, and the prospect of having to learn the ropes of a new and probably harsher prison was not appealing. I said as much to Ristelli. He was standing beneath the ceiling fixture in my cell, isolated from the shadowsthanks to the metal cage in which the bulb was securedin a cone of pale light, making it appear that he had just beamed in from a higher plane, a gray saint sent to illumine my solitary darkness.
"You've blown your chance at parole," he said. "You'll have to do the whole stretch. But this is not a setback; it's an opportunity. We need men like you at Diamond Bar. The day I met you, I knew you'd be a candidate. I recommended your transfer myself."
I could not have told you which of these statements most astonished me, which most aroused my anger. "'We?' 'A candidate?' What're you talking about?"
"Don't be upset. There's
"You recommended me? Fuck does that mean? Who gives a shit what you recommend?"
"It's true, my recommendation bears little weight. These judgments are made by the board. Nevertheless, I feel I'm due some credit for bringing you to their attention."
Baffled by this and by his air of zoned sanctimony, I sat down on my bunk. "You made a recommendation to the Board of Prisons?"
"No, no! A higher authority. The board of Diamond Bar. Men who have achieved an extraordinary liberty."
I leaned back against the wall, controlling my agitation. "That's all you wanted to tell me? You could have written a letter."
Ristelli sat on the opposite end of the bunk, becoming a shadow beside me. "When you reach Diamond Bar, you won't know what to do. There are no rules. No regulations of any sort. None but the rule of brotherhood, which is implicit to the place. At times the board is compelled to impose punishment, but their decisions are based not on written law, but upon a comprehension of specific acts and their effect upon the population. Your instincts have brought you this far along the path, so put your trust in them. They'll be your only guide."
"Know what my instincts are right now? To bust your goddamn head." Ristelli began to speak, but I cut him off. "No, man! You feed me this let-your-conscience-be-your-guide bullshit, and
"Not your conscience. Your instincts."
"You feed me this total fucking bullshit, and all I can think is, based on your recommendation, I'm being sent to walls where you say hardly anybody ever gets out of 'em." I prodded Ristelli's chest with a forefinger. "You tell me something'll do me some good up there!!"
"I can't give you anything of the sort. Diamond Bar's not like Vacaville. There's no correlation between them."
"Are you psycho? That what this is? You're fucking nuts? Or you're blowing somebody lets your ass wander around in here and act like some kinda smacked-out Mother Teresa? Give me a name. Somebody can watch out for me when I get there."
"I wish I could help you more, but each man must find his own freedom." Ristelli came to his feet. "I envy you."
"Yeah? So why not come with me? Guy with your pull should be able to wangle himself a ride-along."
"That is not my fate, though I return there every day and every night in spirit." His eyes glistened. "Listen to me, Tommy. You're going to a place few will ever experience. A place removed from the world yet bound to it by a subtle connectivity. The decisions made by those in charge for the benefit of the population enter the consciousness of the general culture and come to govern the decisions made by kings and presidents and despots. By influencing the rule of law, they manipulate the shape of history and redefine cultural possibility."
"They're doing a hell of a job," I said. "World's in great goddamn shape these days."
"Diamond Bar has only recently come to primacy. The new millennium will prove the wisdom of the board. And you have an opportunity to become part of that wisdom, Tommy. You have an uncommon sensibility, one that can illustrate the process of the place, give it visual form, and this will permit those who follow in your path to have a clearer understanding of their purpose and their truth. Your work will save them from the missteps that you will surely make." Ristelli's voice trembled with emotion. "I realize you can't accept what I'm saying. Perhaps you never will. I see in you a deep skepticism that prevents you from finding peace. But accomplishment
that you can aspire to, and through accomplishment you may gain a coin of greater worth. Devote yourself to whatever you choose to do. Through devotion all avenues become open to the soul. Serve your ambition in the way a priest serves his divinity, and you will break the chains that weigh down your spirit."
· · · · ·
On my first night in jail, at the age of fifteen, a Mexican kid came over to where I was standing by myself in the day room, trying to hide behind an arrogant pose, and asked if I was jailwise. Not wanting to appear inexperienced, I said that I was, but the Mexican, obviously convinced that I was not, proceeded to enlighten me. Among other things, he advised me to hang with my own kind (i.e., race) or else when trouble occurred no one would have my back, and he explained the diplomatic niceties of the racial divide, saying that whenever another white man offered to give me five, flesh-to-flesh contact was permitted, but should a Latino, an Asian, an Arab, an Afro-American, or any darkly hued member of the human troupe offer a similar encouragement, I was to take out my prison ID card and with it tap the other man's fingertips. In every jail and prison where I had done time, I had received a similar indoctrination lecture from a stranger with whom I would never interact again. It was as if the system itself had urged someone forward, stimulating them by means of some improbable circuitry to volunteer the fundamentals of survival specific to the place. Ristelli's version was by far the most unhelpful I had ever heard, yet I did not doubt that his addled sermonette was an incarnation of that very lecture. And because of this; because I had so little information about the prison apart from Ristelli's prattle; because I believed it must be a new style of supermax whose powers of spiritual deprivation were so ferocious, it ate everything it swallowed except for a handful of indigestible and irretrievably damaged fragments like Ristelli; for these reasons and more I greatly feared what might happen when I was brought to Diamond Bar.
The gray van that transported me from Vacaville seemed representative of the gray strangeness that I believed awaited me, and I constructed the mental image of a secret labyrinthine vastness, a Kafkaville of brick and steel, a partially subterranean complex like the supermax in Florence, Colorado where Timothy McVeigh, Carlos Escobar, and John Gotti had been held; but as we crested a hill on a blue highway south of Mount Shasta, a road that wound through a forest of old-growth spruce and fir, I caught sight of a sprawling granite structure saddling the ridge ahead, looking ominously medieval with its guard turrets and age-blackened stone and high, rough-hewn walls, and my mental image of the prison morphed into more Gothic linesI pictured dungeons, archaic torments, a massive warden with a bald head the size of a bucket, filed teeth, and a zero tattooed on his brow.
The road angled to the left, and I saw an annex jutting from one side of the prison, a windowless construction almost as high as the main walls, also of weathered granite, that followed the slope of the ridge downward, its nether reach hidden by the forest. We passed in among the ranked trees, over a rattling bridge and along the banks of a fast-flowing river whose waters ran a mineral green through the calm stretches, cold and clouded as poison in a trough, then foamed and seethed over thumblike boulders. Soon the entrance to the annex became visible on the opposite shore: iron doors enclosed by a granite arch and guarded by grandfather firs. The van pulled up, the rear door swung open. When it became apparent that the driver did not intend to stir himself, I climbed out and stood on the bank, gazing toward my future. The ancient stones of the annex were such a bleak corruption of the natural, they seemed to presage an imponderable darkness within, like a gate that when opened would prove the threshold of a gloomy Druid enchantment, and this, in conjunction with the solitude and the deafening rush of the river, made me feel daunted and small. The engine of the van kicked over, and the amplified voice of the driver, a mystery behind smoked windows, issued from a speaker atop the roof: "You have ten minutes to cross the river!" Then the van rolled away, gathering speed, and was gone.
At Vacaville I had been handcuffed but not shackled, not the normal procedure, and left alone now I had the urge to run; but I was certain that invisible weapons were trained on me and thought this must be a test or the initial stage in a psychological harrowing designed to reduce me to a Ristelli-like condition. Cautiously, I stepped onto a flat stone just out from the bank, the first of about forty such stones that together formed a perilous footbridge, and began the crossing. Several times, besieged by a surge of water, a damp gust of wind, I slipped and nearly fellto this day I do not know if anyone would have come to my rescue. Teetering and wobbling, fighting for balance, to a casual observer I would have presented the image of a convict making a desperate break for freedom. Eventually, my legs trembling from the effort, I reached the shore and walked up the shingle toward the annex. The building terminated, as I've said, in an arch of pitted stone, its curve as simple as that of a sewer tunnel, and chiseled upon it was not, as might have been expected, Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here or some equally dispiriting legend, but a single word that seemed in context even more threatening: WELCOME. The iron doors were dappled with orange patches of corrosion, the separate plates stitched by rows of large rivets whose heads had the shape of nine-pointed stars. There was no sign of a knocker, a bell, or any alarm I might engage in order to announce myself. Once again I gave thought to running, but before I could act on the impulse, the doors swung silently inward, and moved less by will than by the gravity of the dimness beyond, I stepped inside.
My first impression of Diamond Bar was of a quiet so deep and impacted, I imagined that a shout, such as I was tempted to vent, would have the value of a whisper. The light had a dull golden cast and a grainy quality, as if mixed in with particles of gloom, and the smell, while it plainly was that of a cleaning agent, did not have the astringency of an industrial cleaner. The most curious thing, however, was that there were no administrative personnel, no guards, no term of processing and orientation. Rather than being kept in isolation until it was determined to which block or unit I would be assigned, on passing through the annex door I entered the population of the prison like a pilgrim into a temple hall. The corridor ran straight, broken every fifty yards or so by a short stairway, and was lined with tiers of cells, old-fashioned cribs with sliding gates and steel bars, most of them unoccupied, and in those that were occupied, men sat reading, wall-gazing, watching television. None of them displayed other than a casual interest in me, this a far cry from the gauntlet of stares and taunts I had run when I entered the population at Vacaville. Absent the customary rites of passage, undirected, I kept going forward, thinking that I would sooner or later encounter an official who would inscribe my name or open a computer file or in some other fashion notate my arrival. As I ascended the fourth stairway, I glimpsed a man wearing what looked to be a guard's cap and uniform standing at parade rest on the tier above. I stopped, expecting him to hail me, but his eyes passed over me, and without saying a word, he ambled away.
By the time I reached the sixth stairway, I estimated that I had walked approximately two-thirds the length of the annex, climbed two-thirds the height of the hill atop which the walls of the prison rested; and though I held out hope that there I might find some semblance of authority, I decided to ask for assistance and approached a lanky, pot-bellied man with a pinkish dome of a scalp that caused his head to resemble a lightly worn pencil eraser, an illusion assisted by his tiny eyes and otherwise negligible features. He was sitting in a cell to the right of the stairs, wearingas was everyone within viewgray trousers and a shirt to match. He glanced up as I came near, scowled at me, and set down the notebook in which he had been writing. The gate to his cell was halfway open, and I took a stand well back from it, anticipating that his mood might escalate.
"Hey, brother," I said. "What's up with this place? Nobody signs you in and shit?"
The man studied me a moment, screwed the cap onto his pen.. On the backs of his fingers were faint inky tracings, the ghosts of old tattoos. The precision of his movements conveyed a degree of snippishness, but when he spoke his voice was calm, free of attitude. "'Fraid I can't help you," he said.
I would have been on familiar ground if he had responded with a curse, a warning, or the fawning, fraudulent enthusiasm that would signal his perception of me as a mark, but this politely formal response met none of my expectations. "I'm not asking you to get involved, man. I just need to know where to go. I don't want to get my nuts busted for making a wrong turn."
The man's eyes fitted themselves to the wall of the cell; he seemed to be composing himself, as if I were an irritant whose presence he felt challenged to overcome. "Go wherever you want," he said. "Eventually you'll find something that suits you."
"Asshole!" I clanged my handcuffs against the bars. "Fuck you think you're talking to? I'm not some fucking fish!"
His face tightened, but he kept on staring at the wall. The interior of the cell had been painted a yellowish cream, and the wall was marred by discolorations and spots from which the paint had flaked away that altogether bore a slight resemblance to a line of trees rising from a pale ground. After a few seconds he appeared to become lost in contemplation of it. Some of the men in other cells on the ground tier had turned our way, yet none ventured to their doors, and I sensed no general animosity. I was accustomed to prisons filled with men on the lookout for breaks in the routine, any kind of action to color the monotony, and the abnormal silence and passivity of these men both intimidated and infuriated me. I took a circular stroll about the corridor, addressing the occupants of the cells with a sweeping stare, hating their mild, incurious faces, and said in a voice loud enough for all to hear, "What're you, a bunch of pussies? Where the hell I'm supposed to go!"
Some of the men resumed their quiet occupations, while others continued to watch, but no one answered, and the unanimity of their unresponsiveness, the peculiar density of the atmosphere their silence bred, played along my nerves. I thought I must have come to an asylum and not a prison, one abandoned by its keepers. I wanted to curse them further, but felt I would be slinging stones at a church steeple, so aloof and immune to judgment they seemed. Like old ladies lost in their knitting and their memory books, though not a man within sight looked any older than I. With a disrespectful, all-inclusive wave, I set out walking again, but someone behind me shouted, "Bitch!," and I turned back. The baldheaded man had emerged from his cell and was glaring at me with his dime-sized eyes. He lifted his fist and struck down at the air, a spastic gesture of frustration. "Bitch!" he repeated. "Bitch
you bitch!" He took another babyish swipe at the air and hiccupped. He was, I saw, close to tears, his chin gone quivery. He stumbled forward a step, then performed a rigid half-turn and grasped the bars of his cell, pushing his face betweenit appeared that he had forgotten that his gate was open. Many of the inmates had left their cells and were standing along the tiers, intent upon himhe covered his head with his hands, as if defending himself against the pressure of their gaze, and slumped to his knees. A broken keening escaped his lips. Trembling now, he sank onto his haunches. Shame and rage contended in his face, two tides rushing together, and the instant before he collapsed onto his side, he caught the race of one and said feebly and for a last time, "Bitch!"
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