When the Hanlin Chronicles are finished, I’m going to write a thriller, of sorts, revolving around an attorney in Federal Prison (where, you ask, do I come up with this stuff?) offered a deal: get out early by agreeing to defend a terrorist before a military tribunal. Of course, nothing’s as it seems, especially the deal . . . but more on that after I bury William Hanlin (no, not literally . . . I don’t think . . .)
The first few pages, however (I’ve already written a few hundred, seems to just flow, which says volumes about a lot) pretty much nail the Federal prison experience quickly and efficiently. To whit:
Scarafini and Gigi were about to go at it twenty feet to the right of the bocce court, between two blue-metal picnic tables – the one on the right burdened with the considerable bulks of born-agains whose belief in the imminence of the rapture precluded exercise or diet; the other packed with Hispanic domino players oblivious to the world behind a shield of self-induced white noise and clinking tiles.
I was shooting baskets, as ever, forty-five feet away when Scarafini’s grating, pre-cancerous rasp, dentist-drill-without-the-Novocain voice smacked into Gigi’s incongruous basso-feminine-sing-song-you-go-girl falsetto to create that unique federal low security prison sound known as ‘trouble for others’. Or, entertainment, depending on one’s viewpoint.
I stopped shooting, stood absently dribbling right to left, left to right left through legs to right to back, my nervous tic, and watched. Experienced prison observers would note I instantly positioned myself between the backboard and the camera on the building behind it. In prison, always best not to be witnessed witnessing.
The yelling match intensified even as it settled into a Roberts Rules of Procedure exchange of escalating epithets. The six foot-three, two hundred and forty pound, jet black, pig-tailed Gigi accused Scarafini of fairly gruesome, but colorful, acts of incest; the five foot-seven, two hundred and fifty pound, Marciano nosed Scarafini accused Gigi of performing, and enjoying, multiple acts of fellatio – which was pretty much like calling Lawrence Olivier a thespian.
In moments they were nose to chest and reaching the pivotal, defining prison altercation moment – when either fists would actually fly or, the norm, one or both would remark “Yeah, well, I can’t afford to lose the good time, man”. The latter would be a crushing anti-climax for the onlookers that now included the entire yard as there was ample cause for the attention the scene was receiving from every clique imaginable.
There is a saying that you can be anyone or anything you want in prison. This would account for the statistically troubling abundance of incarcerated Navy SEALS. In the matter looming before us, two longstanding FMC Devens myths were about to be put to the acid test.
Well, one, really, for by then Scarafini’s long standing claim of being a mob enforcer had been shredded by the simple sight, on two rust brown benches thirty feet from the festering disagreement where sat at least five hundred and sixty collective years of Boston and Providence mob brain thrust stoically sipping coffee from clear, oversized mugs and evincing no concern whatever for said former loyal employee.
The second myth could only be proved should we get beyond the clichéd profanities and down to it: it was rumored dear, sweet-tempered, swishing, openly gay Gigi had been a Golden Gloves boxer in Philadelphia. The real Golden Gloves, not some obscure, underground, tabooed, City of Brotherly Love sex club.
We got a step closer when Scarafini, finally, poked a finger into Gigi’s chest, the crucial make or break moment. Tension in the yard hit its height . . . . until Scarafini stepped back a foot and a half, stuck out his chin, deflated us all with “Fuck it, you’re not worth it,” and dropped his hands to his sides – the tacit ‘I’ve made my point, I’m going now to leave you reeling in the residue of my acid wit’ move indicating Scarafini’s willingness, or real need, to let it go.
The air was sucked out of the yard, as only the sudden descent of peace can do. And ninety-nine out of a hundred times this would have meant the other party, to wit Gigi, would stand with balled fists, watch the departing back of his almost assailant, and yell choice, perhaps even witty, insults, thereby tacitly agreeing to the draw and allowing both to claim victory within their, very different, social circles. Ninety-nine out of a hundred.
Exactly how it looked it would go down to most of the crowd, the ones overlooking an additional factor, beyond the norm – the all important addendum that Scarafini was a world class rat. It was the only thing he was good at, and at that he was a virtuoso. It was, therefore, a dead certainty Scarafini was headed straight to a staff member to report his sudden brush with homosexuality. Scarafini, as with any snitch, was integral to the orderly maintenance of the institution, Gigi was surely in for some kind of hassle no matter what.
A fact Gigi calculated with impressive intellectual dexterity. As Scarafini moved to stomp off, Gigi proved his myth true when he leapt like a puma, caught Scarafini with two blur-rapid jabs, then, before Scarafini blinked, landed a haymaker that snapped Scarafini’s jawbone with the crack of a chisel on plaster. Scarafini’s two-fifty proved Newton correct, landed like a sack of wet laundry by Gigi’s neon pink sneakers.
Gig did a neat pirouette away from the widening blood splatter, never deigned to look down even when the dirty wash moaned unintelligibly. He minced toward me, slowly opening and closing his rapidly swelling right hand.
“Hurt yourself?” I asked, picking up my dribble.
“The whole time I’m thinkin’ I’m gonna hit him, I kept saying to myself, not in the face, not in the face,” he sing-songed in wonder, shaking his head along with the hand.
“He was so w-i-i-i-i-i-de open, I just hadda,” he tossed out a lopsided grin.
“Going to turn yourself in?”
“Ya-eh,” the grin widened, “there’s probably ten guys already doin’ it for me. What the hell, get it over with.”
“In that case, good luck,” I grinned back, had to, he was infectious.
“Do me a favor, Sweetie?”
“What do you need?”
“I get outta the hole in a month or so, help me file a discrimination suit against this dump?”
“What basis?” It came out automatically.
“Sexual orientation, Honey,” he purred, “you know, I’m gay and —“
“And,” he ignored me, “They got me in here with all these gay bashing, closet fucking queers. I fear for my life.”
“Sure you do,” I agreed.
“Help me file?”
“See you in a month.”
“Thanks,” he took a moment, as if to remember his persona, licked his lips with purpose, threw a hand on a hip, and frankly appraised me for the for the chunk of meat he thought I was, ‘You know, you can al-ways come over to our side. ‘
“Not happening, Gigi, but I appreciate the offer,” I answered to his shrug, he continued to shashshay toward the office. I headed out myself, took a last look over my shoulder – Scarafini was crumbled but moving in curious little spasms; the eight Mafioso kingpins sat without expression, still sipping; a large clump of sex offenders (they always traveled in clumps) moved far across the oval track pretending not to look at ‘the scene’; everyone else had sensibly cleared out.
I moved quickly without hurrying – something I had learned my first week – past the office now so crammed with vying potential squealers it resembled the floor of the commodities exchange. Gigi stood at the end of the line, politely, quietly, waiting to turn himself in. I kept moving, a fast pace to my dorm, to get there before they closed the compound to bring up the little go-cart ambulance and scrape Scarafini off the cement.
I had always been a light sleeper, it came in handy on more than a few occasions: an aborted fire when I was fifteen, dozens of Nor’easters, babies crying, wife’s sneaky appendix, sick children . . . I had had many reasons for being thankful for my gift.
Who knew it would not work in prison. No, wrong verb, it worked fine, it was just that I woke a thousand times a night, thus rendering my gift a curse. Snores, groans, the slap-slap-slap of obese men wearing plastic sandals against naked cement floors; prehensile farts; thudding, thumping bodies tossing on scrap paper filled mattresses; key-ladened COs sleepwalking through the graveyard shift like Marley’s ghost on steroids; the mammoth, ancient, ice machine in the common area releasing Everest sized avalanches at random intervals; insomniacs snapping pages of glossy paged magazines; yips from the night terror boys, all on different schedules; dozens more.
For five months I arose more tired than when I went to sleep. Twenty-two more months to go, if I did not ditch my gift soon I risked staggering out like a zombie to lurch in front of the first large vehicle flying by to a quick, ignoble end.
I woke the morning after the fight the way I always woke up – from a half-sleep to blinding fluorescent lights flipped on at exactly six am, lights strong enough to detect deep seated tumors. My cue to begin what passed for routine: twenty-seven minutes hiding under a coarse gray blanket hopelessly hoping it would all go away; four minutes to slide down from the upper bunk, pad to the bathroom, empty kidneys, brush teeth; thirty-seven seconds to pull khaki pants over boxers, khaki shirt over t-shirt; twenty-three seconds to lean against my bunk and dwell on what it would be like to crawl back into a real bed under a warm comforter and nuzzle against a warmer woman.
The last truncated by the awake-the-dead, hair curling P.A. announcing “Mess Hall is Open” with all the enthusiasm of someone narrating his own execution. I counted to ten, slowly, headed out, flipped open the two-hundred pound steel barreled door, exited into the dark, assaulted by cool, fresh air that immediately went to war with my lingering over-night, orifice stuffing institutional miasmas. I stepped onto the walkway, merged seamlessly into the slow shuffling, coughing, chest hocking line of fellow inmates headed dead east toward the lightening sky looming directly behind the mess hall.
I looked neither to the right, nor left, nor ahead, I stared at the pavement three feet ahead, not risking eye contact in the predawn hour. Devens is a Federal Medical facility, the last repository for the blind, lame, psychotic, senile, withered by age, dialysis tethered, sexually dangerous, Aids ravaged, HIV endangered, transplant awaiting, chronic bitchers, and a host of various, assorted, too scary to contemplate, disease-ridden inmates from around the country. The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ equivalent to the last stop on the short bus, an Island of Misfit Toys and Papa Geppetto swam for shore long ago.
There were a handful of us healthy, drably innocuously charged white collar guys and low level drug lords brought in to do the work – the impressive sounding, too sad to contemplate in reality, work cadre.
After five months my curiosity had long been slaked, I no longer needed to look around on my way to breakfast to confirm the ragged line I was part of was the Bataan Death March without evenly spaced, neatly attired, gleaming bayonet menacing Japanese soldiers lining the way. They, at least, would have enlivened the procession.
I remained an island unto myself through the cafeteria line, grabbed a plastic plate weighed down by some unidentifiable mass of dough striped with something white and gooey that, considering the above institutional description, did little to abet my appetite; then a bowl of faux frosted flakes made in Kazakhstan; to the drink station and 1% milk generously cut with tap water; and, thankfully finally, a cup of coffee the color of the Yangtze River.
I found an empty table twice removed from a grinning covey of pimply-faced, crew cut pedophiles rehashing the evening’s Dungeon and Dragons game; one removed from a group of ursine, good ol’ boys glaring at the gamers’ table and making sure they were noticed doing so in the slimmer than slim hope they would be taken for the pedophile-hating, crystal meth brewing rednecks they purported to be rather than, of course, the kiddie porn peddlers they most assuredly were.
I sipped my genuine coffee-flavored hot water and concentrated on the formations created as the frost departed from the flakes, congealed and sank below the gray milk leaving the flakes free to form continents. Eventually, I poked the dough blob and was moderately reassured when it did not move.
I was debating trying it when John Donne’s theme was annoyingly proved once again and I was reeled back to reality by the presence of a reed thin, twitchy, Wally Cox look alike member of that most aggrieved of all human sub-species the ‘screwed-by- the- system- guilty- but- not- that- guilty’ inmate.
I glanced up involuntarily, it was all the justification he needed to speak, “Hey, Lawyer-man, how yoo doin’?”
“Name’s Alec,” I answered without affect, “and to tell you the truth, I don’t feel so good, so —“
“Yeah yeah that’s great,’ he cut me off while darting glances around the dining room, satisfied, he leaned forward across the table, dropped his voice conspiratorially – an utterly wasted effort as he had already told everyonein the place – inmate and staff alike – every conceivable detail of his case, including procedural history . . . at least twice, “I got sumptin’ from the court yesserday.”
“Uh-huh,” my voice dripped with non-commitment. To reinforce it, I took a bite out of the dough thing – as I suspected, pure, uncooked yeast.
“Yeah, got it right here,” a bony hand plucked a thin envelop out of the inside flap of his winter coat. He flourished it the way McCarthy did his list of Reds, “Burgher already look’d it over, said he kin help but’ll cost.”
I could tell by the thinness of the envelop he had been summarily rejected by yet another court. I knew it would be his seventh or eighth such rejection on the same grounds, I knew, further, the last, drippingly terse, paragraph begged Wally to leave the court alone. Burgher, however, was one of a half dozen jailhouse lawyers who plied their trade in the law library ten hours a day. Men self taught in the mechanics of the law with exactly the same chance of concisely stating a case as the proverbial infinite number of chimps sitting at an infinite number of typewriters had of producing Hamlet and Moby Dick on the same day.
Burgher was the worse of the bunch, a man who looked like Aqua-lung with an affinity for obese briefs as full of flamboyantly quoted case law as they were short on fact, written on the theory the Mad hatter was correct –‘saying it thrice makes it true’. For the right amount of commissary snacks and a generous donation to his inmate trust account he would promise relief from writ of execution . . . even if it had to wait until after death to take.
I made no move to touch the envelop, that would confer ownership I did not want, instead I addressed the dregs of my frosted flakes, “I’ll tell you, Wally, if —“
“Why do you always call me Wally, I tole you over and over, my name Ernst,” he announced that like it was an improvement.
“Because you look like Wally Cox.”
“I don’ know who that is,” he said with suspicion.
“Actor in the sixties.”
“Actor, huh?” He brightened, impressed.
“Yeah, bunch of Disney movies, long time on Hollywood Squares, voice of Underdog,” all that and I got the same look he would have given me had I recited the Theory of Relativity. In German.
“What he look like?”
I put the spoon down slowly, sat back, looked him square in the eye and slowly pointed. At him.
It took him only a minute or so to get it, another ten seconds to break out in a grin, “Oh, yeah, sorry.”
“Look, Wally,” I resumed, pausing to take a sip of tepid iodine coffee, “Go with Burgher then, I told you three notices, rulings, and orders ago . . . . it’s . . . all . . . over . . . for . . . . you. Talk to Burgher.”
“Yeah, but,” he raised an emaciated finger, “I wanna deal with a real lawyer, street lawyer like you.”
I looked at his expectant, shiny face for exactly one heartbeat, resisted the urge to tell him Wally Cox killed himself, sighed, “And this real lawyer is telling you to get on with your life, that shit,” I pointed at the still uncreased U.S. District Court envelop, “is all over.”
“I gotta have some chance, man,” a low whine.
“You . . . do . . . not.”
I rose, grabbed the tray, headed for the dish room, Wally tripped over himself to fall in behind. I pushed the tray through the slot and walked out into a perfect morning. Wally was a foot behind, immediately flagged down by the CO lounging against the wall – a pat down in case Wally had decided to steal some defective frosted flakes or inedible yeast. Wally could thank his selection on the fact he was wearing his winter coat in sixty-five degree weather.
I made tracks to the education building and my job as a tutor harboring the twin hopes the door was unlocked and Wally had been found with a copy of the master key on him. I had no luck on either score, the building was locked, Wally was free and bearing down on me with the mindless intensity of a planet killing asteroid.
“Hey, lawyer – ah – Alec, man, gotta be some chance, right?”
In desperation I tried the door again – only tutors could go in early, he would be stranded, if only … But, no. In my ever present exhaustion and overall pique at having my morning ruined I snapped, “Sure, you’ve got a chance, the courthouse could burn down with your judge in it, destroying the computer and paper files. Then, and only then, you might have a twenty percent chance of something happening . . . . man,” I finished in my best ‘real lawyer’ voice.
“I knew there was a chance,” he got a faraway look in his eyes, punched me on the arm and wandered off . . .
. . . while it sunk in what I had just told the most prolific serial arsonist in East Coast history.