The Tutor – With Edits
When I wake each morning, taped to the bottom of the bunk above me are pictures. In other cells, photos are mostly of strange vixens – paper girls never met – disillusioning the men as they treat women as an assemblage of orifices; even coupling the porn with snapshots from home. Irony sharpening its fangs to tungsten as he says, "There's my little girl next to that gaping leg-spread!"
It can be difficult to endeavor to abstain from self-service, to seek a more upstanding manhood (no puns please). Guys here think it is okay to view what society deems "soft porn". Two guesses who invented that oxymoron. You can paint it however justifiably you want. The air-brushed strokes of scantily-clad women are specially designed to arouse sexual desire. The dictionary defines said material as "pornographic".
But I digress, for that fight is not this story.
The pictures above me are of my son, nephew, and brother. A peculiar assortment that can transfix me for hours on end. One has my brother pulling a little red wagon, wheeling along my three-year-old boy and his four-year-old son. He's looking back to ensure they are sitting safely.
Fifteen years later my brother is still doing that. I can take my hand, spread it out wide and, with my pinkie, brush back my son's mop of hair. That picture was taken while fly fishing in Colorado with his cousin and uncle. My middle finger can chuck my brother on the chin as he cradles a brown speckled trout from the same fishing trip. At the extreme expanse of my hand, the tip of my thumb can rest on my nephew's high school graduation gown. A faux visit of sorts as I talk myself into each scenario, saying over and over, "some day, some day." Those are my fantasies from the pictures on the bunk where I will languish for the next twenty years.
The pictures separating my son ensconced as a little boy in a wagon and the photos of my son as a sophomore in college are about a foot. The distance between us now is a great chasm that one day I will cross.
It is 5:45 a.m. and I wait to crawl out of my bunk because my "cellie" (cellmate) goes to work first. He is "Yata Man", a strapping 6'2", 260 pound black man from down Portsmouth Way. He's knocking out 300 push-ups in sets of quarters. Exercising occupies chunks of time in the daily mundane of prison life.
Yata Man works cleaning up the compound. Sweeping and searching for opportunities as he cleans the various departments within the prison. He spends much of his time screening for upcoming scams that bring home the bacon; and sometimes it is the bacon! Not an often fed delight, it becomes a high-priced commodity once on the menu. Men devise innovative clandestine operations to get the swine to dine, and Yata Man gets the spoils. He pulls down enough stamps to express mail a house across country. Stamps are the cash of convicts.
We exist in about 85 square feet. A toilet, a sink, three lockers and three bunks, stacked. This was a "three manner", but the top was a treacherous climb even for the athletes amongst us. After several complaints, our overweight assistant warden attempted the ascent. An hour later, medical left with him on a stretcher and putting us up there stopped. So, the best cells are the three manners because of the extra storage space, which is used for contraband. Everything Yata Man and I own are packed away in here.
As he shuffles about, I contemplate this "Groundhog Day" kind of existence. That's what institutionalizes: monotony. You have to make things happen for yourself or down into that "convict craze" you will wander forever. Cops can easily spot ex-cons on the street because of the fugitive-like alertness shrouding their gait. Shoulders hunched, eyes shifting, stepping like the parade's right behind them.
The locks are popped so, once we are ready, we can go get some prison. It gives us a sense of "normalcy" to leave our cells and enter into the never-ending hallways of white on white. We are careful to keep our faces forward in an attempt to radiate purpose and self-assuredness. Those with wandering eyes could catch themselves in a wreck if caught peeping into other cells. You always see things in here better kept close to breast.
Developing patience and tolerance is a day to day effort. But, if you can't get them from here, you will never have them. Plus, without them, fights will come your way like the morning sun. The element of violence that breeds malevolence exists here as if the periodic chart was on the wall.
Donning his coat for the cold, Yata Man ensures I'm up. Cellies are supposed to look out for each other, the pretense of what we should've been doing on the streets for our family. This is prevalent when the proximity of such living and dying are up close and personal to those who bunk three feet away. Most of the time it gets done. It depends on whether he's a convict or an inmate. Vast difference. A convict, if in your court, will do battle with you, for you, and in spite of you. An inmate, on the other hand, runs for cover at the first sign of trouble; cowering into a selfish shell that'll reap untoward amounts of incrimination for those in the know. And speaking of knowing; in here you can see what goes on, but you don't really see. Inmates will tell it – convicts will shelve it.
Yata splits, calling to me, "Donnie Boy," (nicknames are plastered on you as you traverse this camp. I've got: Donnie Boy, Coach, Card Man, Magician, GED, Tutor, Preacher Man, Fake Christian, and Choir Boy; so far, I'm going for a record!) "I'm gone. We all clear." This last is said to let me know what's in the cell is secured from prying eyes and frisky hands. This also means if something happens to either of us out there in prison land, the other hightails it back to the cell to shake it down before it gets shook down. It's part of the solidarity that messes with one's attitude to change. If I want to clean up what I used to do, shouldn't it begin in the home? Survival becomes a necessary evil and you must pick and choose battles in here to stay out of the war.
"Later, Dude," I say, semi-awake, sitting up; my bunk only inches from the floor. Thanking God for another day, I mumble a few prayers for those within and without this mean razor wire.
Jobs are meted out if you don't try to get one. You can choose doing the lazy man's way, but what would you be once released – a go-getter? More like a no-getter, and a no-get her. You can make up to 30-40 cents an hour; show me the money! I make about $30 a month working for the Education Department as a tutor.
Wiping off the sweat from my many push-ups, I grab my toothbrush and think once more about quitting my job. The objective of my position is to help men get their GEDs—hence the sardonic nickname echoing behind me most days. I've not seen one man that I've tutored get his GED. It's frustrating to go everyday to class in hopes of making a difference in someone's life, only to be disappointed time and time again.
Most men in here are only looking out for number one, in hopes to keep what comes of number two clear from obstruction and intrusion. Since this is my third time behind the wire, I'm done hurting people and now want to help.
Often times over my first cup of joe in the morning, during devotionals and some Bible reading, I truly wonder who I am helping. Take, for instance, the crazy situation in the class to begin with.
Out of three classes, there are 41 men – all black, except two. Did I mention I am white? Most are under the age of 25. I am almost 50 and white – did I tell you that already?
Most sold drugs and got busted or prosecuted or sentenced by an older white guy who looks just like me.
The cultural barriers facing this gap are wider than the Grand Canyon. I do what I can to cross culturize myself. Being an Army brat and disabled vet, I am not especially frightened by a room full of ethological challenge. Most of these men are barely the age of my boy. Never do I use that demeaning epithet. There's a certain amount of common sense you need to have in the confining social situation here in prison; so let's keep boy out in any form when addressing the students.
Also, avoid group phrases. "You all" darn near got the reverse act of Rodney Kinging done to me. That was the phrase the Muslim student used – "Rodney King him" – when he believed I proved to him what he knew I was anyway.
Muslim man is about 24, sports the trademark jutting beard, and probably bench presses Buicks. He has been waiting patiently for this white, blue-eyed devil to slip up and show his true colors.
"You all need to listen to this so you can do well on the test tomorrow," I said. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, his bristling was a bustling.
"Whaddya mean, 'ya'al', White Man?" His anti-Bush, anti-American, flag burning eyes bore into me like large drills spinning to scramble my brains.
"I meant you guys," I gestured to the class of students.
Cutting me off, he spewed, "and I think you meant us niggas, Masta!"
He began to rise as I stammered out, "N-n-no, of course I didn't," shooting a glance toward the door, which is exactly nine tables and sixteen black men away.
"You ain't never making that door," he spit out menacingly.
A few of the gang bangers started enjoying this, sending in their barbs to this smart alecky, white trash, honky, cracker. "Yeah, let's Rodney King him!" The mob mentality is stronger in prison – a spring filled with enough tension to launch a space shuttle.
I was thinking things I ought not; like the movie, "Blackhawk Down", and the cinderblock beating given to that truck driver during the LA riots. I pushed that thought away and focused on survival. Books of stamps would work (lots of them), which I didn't have. No decks of cards to throw diversion by that alter ego of a magician residing within the loosening bowels of this man I'm quickly becoming. Most fights you get whupped in, you crap yourself, so my butt was just letting my brain know what to be expecting forthwith.
Five guys had gotten up by that time, and I was hoping the man who was the teacher – and who had the walkie talkie – would get in here to join the fun. To men in prison, officials are either gay, lesbian, transsexual, nymphos, frigid, want it up the butt, or never had it and need it bad!
Then it hit me like a wayward hammer: it was Thursday, my bosses' late day. He wouldn't be in until I was dead!
Muslim man and company upped their taunting by chucking pencils at me; the altercation was escalating and mounting up to the ride. I had a quick thought of dropping my pants and crapping on the spot! That might clear the room, but the monikers I'd be donning would stay welded to me for the next fifteen years, and frankly I'd rather take the butt whipping.
All of a sudden the classroom door opened. Standing in the threshold was what every convict does not wish to meet in a dark alley. To say the guy struck fear in cold hearts could only be proven by the eerie silence that followed. What was once a mocking marauding brood, had become a scripted take of a pall, as if a large muzzle was shoved on the air, strangling out all oxygen to speak or even breathe. That crazy racial hatred shouldered on the highways of generational curses was quelled as men returned to their seats to give sway to the presence in room 222.
They called him "Death Row"; never to his face. Most didn't know his first name because he doesn't talk that much. Walking softly… You could visibly see the grief-stricken tracks life had splayed out across his face, as if mountain crags of hurt had crashed down on him all at once. And, as a matter of fact, it had; for those who know what's what. Since Death Row was in his late 50's – certainly not knowing it by his physique – you'd have to be old school to know what went down in 1972. Did I mention I was old school?
Well, this is how it went down.
Malik Johnson was a young, black man with a desire to have the American dream realized through hard work and a God-given talent to fix things. Already at only 22, he was on the rise in a small engineering firm that had maintenance contracts with the railway yards. A quick study with only a 10th grade education, he proved himself as a "gopher", making headway with great alacrity into apprenticeship. He had stepped into a supervisor's spot in a short four years.
He met his beautiful wife at a company banquet. She was with a catering company and it was love at first sight for Malik. For her though, it was more of a step toward getting things to live a life of luxury. They married six months later, bearing two beautiful children that Malik adored beyond measure. He loved his little family, striving to give them everything. It was what he lived and breathed.
The occasion bringing hell's stoking fires was Malik's fourth year wedding anniversary. Although Malik sensed his wife wasn't like she was in the earlier days, and had not been so for a while, he buried it in the bosom of his love for their children.
It wasn't exactly the kind of marital trouble that needed counseling – he was sure he could fix it. He felt he could do something to reignite the passion that brought about their lovely children. He asked his boss for half a day off earlier in the week and, since he never missed work, his boss had no problem giving the upstart the time. It is too bad some emergency mechanical failure hadn't stalled Malik's plans that fateful afternoon.
With excited passion, like a senior dating the prom queen, he stopped at the flower shop for two dozen roses; already in his pocket was the $1100.00 necklace his wife said she wanted months ago at the mall. He arranged for his in-laws to watch the kids for the night. Reservations were made at the best 5-star hotel, like his wife preferred. Plus there was a Jazz festival underway down at the port by the river. It was gonna be great! The misgivings of a one-sided lover, trying to mend what he didn't understand was broken to begin with.
On the way home, Al Green's'72 was playing and Malik had matched his love dirge to the intent of his own heart. In his driveway, he stepped out of his truck, humming the last bars, and holding the roses. Suddenly, he stopped dead in his tracks – the stereo was blasting from his home. Normally at that time, the kids would be napping and his wife would be watching daytime dramas.
Drama was on the way.
Walking into the garage where his wife's'72 El Dorado was he spied two beers in the console holder, an empty twelve-pack on the back floor, and the dog barking like crazy in its kennel.
Something was welling up, crawling darkly and sinisterly like back in his ghetto youth, so many places ago. Dropping the roses, he instinctively picked up the Louisville Slugger he had used to hit dingers for the company's softball team the past four years. Those were good years.
Stepping into his house, the blaring of music was intense, but there's an instinctual sound he picked out of the din – his children screaming out for Mommy. He raced down the hallway, where only two doors were closed: the master bedroom and the bathroom. Abreast of it he heard his children's panicked little voices, laced with a sense of abandonment. He knew that cry well from his own upbringing.
Twisting the knob to the bathroom and finding it locked, Malik threw his shoulder into it and the door gave way to his muscular frame. Although his blood was rising, what he saw in front of him sent it scorching like a back draft in an emotional brush fire.
His one year old little precious was strapped in the high chair; food stuffs all on her, on the mirror, the floor, everywhere. In the bathtub was his little man. He had one of the dog's leashes around his neck tied to the towel rack and his little fingers were pruned from the water, now mixed with his feces and urine. Crying out to his Dada, he said, "I'm sorry, Dada. This time Mommy put Buster's leash on me and I couldn't reach the potty." This time? THIS TIME! Malik's blood became rocket fuel.
Ripping the towel rack off the wall, he pulled his little boy out of the tub and removed the collar. His little girl had calmed down, her hero had arrived. She began cooing and calling for Dada, but her bright smile only served to deepen the darkness in his heart. He got her loose, wiped both children down, and wrapped them in a big beach towel. Then he leaned real close, telling them to just stay put and he would be back in a minute. And really when you think about most mayhem that begets murder, a minute is plenty of time.
Standing erect, he picked up Mr. Louie. Through chattering teeth, his little boy asked, "wwwhaddya going to do with the bat, Dada?"
"Don't worry, Son. Stay here. Promise, Okay?"
"You'll come back to us, Dada?"
"Of course, Son; hold your sister for me, okay?"
"Okay, Dada, but hurry," he pleaded, pulling the towel tighter around him and his little sister.
He stepped out into the hall in a rage. The short 20 feet to the master bedroom became the hallway from the movies that continues on, unable to be reached. He thought that maybe he should just get his kids, the dog, and leave. For over three decades, that thought haunted him. Love will compel us to look and see how deep hurt can eviscerate our hearts.
Unflinchingly, he marched down the hall with the madness of murder, not missing a step as he kicked in his bedroom door. Splintering shards of wood scattered underfoot as he looked on the scene in horror. What little hope of affection he still had for his wife was extinguished in an instant as he witnessed her partaking in obscene acts with two men he'd never met—but they'd meet Mr. Louie soon enough. He didn't think; his body simply reacted.
His wife was on the bed on all fours as a man rode her from behind, his back to the menace just entering. The man in her mouth saw the exploding door and jerked himself free, trying hard to escape before the grim reaper caught up to him. He might have made it had it not been for the burglar bars, which abruptly ended his headlong attempt at freedom, cleaving his skull cleanly.
Seeing his buddy's window dressing act, the other victim tried to pull out of Malik's wife and turned in time to see the wrath of fury on the business end of the company's home run champ. The second swing wasn't needed, but anger, once released, runs its course as if a marathon wasn't long enough. His wife screamed, but the sound only lasted for a moment. Malik ended her life with a clean blow to the temple. Thirteen seconds. Moments etched for eternity in Malik's mind and heart…and not just his.
The children, tired of being in the bathroom, had followed the noise down to the master bedroom. There they witnessed a scene directly from a horror movie. Blood flowed freely throughout the room and their Dada stood in the middle with his blood and brain splattered hands, his chest heaving from the adrenalin rush.
Malik turned and his eyes locked on his children, petrified in fear. The noise blaring from the speakers was just another reminder of what had just happened – "out damned spot!" With another mighty Casey swing, he smashed the stereo, sending pieces of metal flying across the room. The ensuing silence was deafening, only broken by his two motherless children whimpering. "Stop, Daddy," cried his four-year-old son who sat shielding his baby sister's eyes.
The carnage complete, he dropped the murder weapon, crossed to his kids, enveloped them in his big arms, and joined in the symphony of weeping. "Daddy loves you. Don't worry. It's gonna be all right," he told them over and over. But it wouldn't be. Far from it.
Their mother, lying naked and dead -- and how that came about -- would gallop through the years of nightmares, trampling underfoot, "gonna be alright" and "don't worry".
The court prosecuted Malik, stating he was calculating in his rage by first stopping to tend to his children. His defense counsel was incompetent and inept. They convicted him of three counts of murder. The suicide victim was supposed to have been thrown by the big (left out black), angry, and strong Malik.
Weeks later the jury handed down the death penalty. Ironically, it was Malik's in-laws – good, solid, in-the-know about their only child, Christian folks – who fought for eleven years to get his sentence commuted to life. Malik told me they did it for their grandchildren. But, over the years, Malik and I shared those walks that only two people in prison can, and I knew they were doing it for him as well.
It took three years and countless laps around the yard before Malik let go. I was glad to be there. After praying, convicts can do that; God released this good man from the guilt and pain that gripped him like a vise, its teeth cutting and bleeding him for 34 years.
The old saying in this camp is, "pressure bursts a pipe". He had seen the devastating results of it early in his 20's. During a windy and snowy day, as we made our way around the yard, he let go of the safety valve, giving me both barrels of the portal that harbored his ships of grief. Sinking them with a weeping so anguished that an embarrassing, intimate knowledge not visited by another crept upon me. The snow got heavier, the air thick with frosty corpses drummed up to dance to the music of Malik's mournful heart.
Here in the standstill of society, bonds can be built on the bulwark of a type of osmosis brotherhood that none can breech.
Over the years, his children and his incredible in-laws visited with a consistency that helped throw subtleness of children's growth into the shadows of aging. In an act rivaling Christ, before his father-in-law died, Malik had his son's surname changed to carry on the goodly lineage of his endearing in-laws. "One bad apple…" you know? Malik's wife gave it a good run though.
You could visibly see the haunting ghost of his wife play across his demeanor after visitation with his now adult children – both successful business folks with college educations – that brought with them several grandchildren. An unexpected reaping from a sorrowful sowing.
Standing at the door of the classroom, Malik saw that I was a bit, well, scared crapless. He immediately moved in, scanning, or should I say, "stalking". I saw firsthand how his devotion to those he loved was so intense he could not rid himself of that projection of protection that was lethal. This man was closer to me than a brother.
He zeroed in on Muslim Man with his uncanny sense for troublemakers. (Good thing softball season was over). "What's up, Donald? Everything alright?" Not once did he take his eyes from Muslim Man, who's a bigger man by far, but who was visibly slinking down in his seat, hoping for an escape hatch. Bullies never can get it up when the "getting" ups in their face. The youngsters got the message screamed at them as that great vacuum of unleashed violence sucked out the purported fight in them.
"Everything's alright, Malikster," (my privileged moniker). "No worries man. Just trying some new teaching methods," I said.
For about 30 seconds, all the pins in the world dropped as Malik stared down Muslim Man. I stood motionless, board marker and eraser in hand in stupefied awe of such commanded respect. Or was it fear? Tiny tendrils of Malik's past clung to him like a pit bull terrier. Not his fault entirely.
His crime was, although vicious in all aspects, a crime of intense passion. How could a mother tie her children up so she could snort cocaine and engage in such graphic indelible adultery?
As Malik slowly retracted his thousand yard stare, he turned to me to let me know that he was going to see the parole board for the fourth time. They meant to keep him because he escaped their death chamber.
The loud speaker screamed, "Activity Move!" which ended the class, moving inmates elsewhere to pull out more chunks of time. Keeping busy keeps the institutionalized shuffle from becoming your preferred dance in this ballroom of deception.
As the men left, I glanced Muslim Man's way to see if future intent could be there, but "Death Row" killed all that nastiness.
As the next class of convicts rolled in, Malik told me he'd see me in an hour. He's in my last class for the day. Although smart as a whip, his ghetto youth had him leaving school early. It doesn't matter if you are 18 or 81, if you come here without a GED or high school diploma, you will be put in school to attempt to get your GED.
In Malik's case, his past 34 years had been about complying. He took the test about 2 months ago. We were both awaiting his results. We convicts are good at waiting.
Finishing up my routine of Bible reading, devotionals, and journaling, I muster up the desire to go back to classroom 222 where cheaters abound, all my pencils and paper get stolen (imagine that), and threats and insults come at me in droves. But I do create my own fun! Just now I'm learning to pit the classes against each other in a kind of "who's the smartest" game to motivate these guys to obtain something that one day they won't regret in a world where ignorance reigns.
With one last look in the mirror, I comb and brush my beard and receding hairline that leaves more on the brush than on my head. After tying my shoes, I lock the lockers and head out the door.
At the squawking of, "Work Call! Work Call!" we spill out of our concrete abodes and forage, heading various places to eke out what will temporarily stop the incessant droning of our sentences.
I walk past many men giving out the 'how ya doin's and 'what's up man's; just another way the personality of prison becomes your façade. We spend time pretending to like, when it is really hate seething like a cauldron, heated with prejudice and indifference.
"Donald! Hey Donald!" I turn to see Malik fast walking across the compound with his seabag on his back. 'What the heck?' I'm thinking. When you see a guy "greenbagging" it, he's being transferred off the unit. Today, for the first time in over ten years, I know I'm going to be late for class. I cross over to him, seeing that coveted excitable look that spells parole.
Already, before he speaks, I miss our never again walks and talks. He's been a good friend. How hard they are to find.
"Donald! I made parole! Can you believe it! I thought I was going to miss you! I shoved all my pictures and paperwork in my bag to get out of here fast! Man I'm glad I caught you! They're sending me to a halfway house! My son and daughter are waiting to carry me there!"
"Man," I said. "That's the most you've ever said at once! Go my friend," I croak, fighting back tears for his freedom and for want of mine.
"I am man. I am. Just one more thing, my brother," he says, grabbing my forearm in a friendly embrace. "You truly helped me with your friendship these years. Write me and I will take care of whatever you need, you hear me?" His eyes are misting now.
"End of move! End of move! Close Compound!" The constant cacophony of that confounded speaker!
We hug awkwardly around the seabag on his back. As Malik turns to freedom, I shout to him, "I'll write ya, you know that!" I write everybody; probably got the record in out-going mail. That's a good ratio lesson: my outgoing mail to my incoming mail. Good retention lesson too!
Off in the distance, Malik is waving the peace sign, and I gotta wipe my face because it's wet. Big boys do cry!
"Let's go!" My boss yells from the open door to education. "Compound's closed!" I step it up, my head down, sniffling away the emotional impact on my coat sleeve.
"Hey, was that Malik Johnson?" my boss asks.
"Yeah, he made parole, heading for the world," I tell him.
"Good for him, he was a great student. I guess I'll mail him his diploma," he says.
"Yeah, he passed with the highest scores we've ever seen here. He was gonna be this year's Valedictorian."
"That's awesome," is all I can say as I make my way down the hallway I've tramped so often in hopes to…
Well, what the heck! Looks like I did, huh?
As I enter ol' room 222, Muslim Man tells me he saw my protector leaving.
"Yeah, he's gone and I gave him your family's address as a going away present. So whaddya say we get to work on these fractions so 'you all' can get your GED!"
A/N - This is my first time putting a story up here. I would really appreciate as much feedback as you can give me. I would like to one day put a bunch of my short stories together into a book of short stories about prison...what do you think?
All reviews are much appreciated!