It was about nine months after my arrest date, and I was still sitting in county, fighting my case. I’d already spent a Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthday separated from the world – the first of many such separations – but to be honest, it wasn’t that bad. My mental anguish – in the form of regrets about the past, and fears and doubts about my future – wasn’t wonderful. But beyond that, living life locked up was manageable. I quickly got the hang of it. Man is nothing if not adaptable.
I’d made at least one good friend during that period. This is the story of when he strangled me into unconsciousness.
Timmy was a good guy under enormous stress. He’d been arrested for murdering his wife, but his assertions of innocence fell largely on deaf ears. Timmy theorized that several police officers, working in tandem to cover up their accidental shooting of his wife, systematically murdered her. After examining every crime-scene photograph, police report, witness statement, ballistics report, medical examiner’s report and other related documents, I was inclined to believe him. Timmy was trapped in a nightmare I couldn’t imagine facing. I quickly became his confidant and support system. It was a difficult role, because I had my own worries, but I believed in his innocence. I still do. Unfortunately, to the world at large he was just another violent black man who’d taken a domestic dispute too far. Nobody cared.
Timmy and I were sitting in his cell. Timmy was delivering a diatribe while I sat quietly and seethed. He was ranting about why young black men brag and exaggerate their sexual prowess. His premise was that because many of them were born into poverty and the inner-city ghetto life, the only thing they could assert with any pride was that they were great Lotharios. Timmy’s sweeping statements offended me because he passed them off as fact, but I knew it couldn’t be true of all young black guys. Maybe some of them who lead lives like that wind up in prison, but not all. Unfortunately, having grown up in a white middle-class household, I didn’t have a racial, cultural, or socioeconomical leg to stand on. So I sat in silence and became more incensed. There was actually a different and deeper cause of my inexhaustible ire.
One of my fellow prisoners, Jaymo, a young black man, had only moments before assured me that if he was out there he would have no problem convincing my wife to sleep with him. The term “sleep with” is mine, whereas Jaymo was much more explicit in his description of how and what he would do to her. Using terms and imagery as graphic you might imagine, he described precisely how he would violate her. According to Jaymo, it would be completely consensual and entirely possible because his “game” with the ladies was so potent and his sexual prowess undeniable.
Jaymo actually believed this. He also wasn’t saying it to offend me or get under my skin. In his mind, these were simply the facts. I was still married at the time, still hopeful that our marriage could survive all my lies and crimes. I was also naïve enough to think that the years of my inevitable prison sentence wouldn’t exceed single digits. The subject of my beloved wife was a sensitive one, and I was very protective of her. I wanted to beat Jaymo for what he said about her. I wanted to beat him bloody. I felt it was what he deserved.
Timmy had been listening and easily identified my escalating anger. He stepped in to literally pull me out of the situation. That’s how I ended up sitting on the steel toilet in Timmy’s cell while he reclined on his slab and opined about the inner-workings of the young African American mind. The problem was that, to me, it felt like Timmy was defending Jaymo’s offensive and lewd remarks. That’s not technically what he was doing, but I was angry and not thinking soundly, so that’s how it felt. This only made me more irate, and I lashed out.
“You want to let him talk about your wife like that, fine, she probably liked that kind of stuff. Your wife is gone, so it doesn’t matter anymore, but my wife is still alive. Don’t tell me how to defend her. You did a shit job of protecting yours.” My remarks were callous, illogical, unfair and untrue. Even as I stormed from his cell in a huff, I felt small and petty. I felt like the world’s most gargantuan asshole.
I scurried next door to my cell with all the dignity of a fleeing rat or cockroach. Standing in the center of my cell, I chuffed out a loud sigh filled with frustration, regret, and shame. The sound of a shower shoe scuffing on the concrete made me turn around. Timmy stood at the threshold of my cell. I opened my mouth to speak, but he attacked before I could say anything.
Timmy’s face was blank. If anger was driving him, it was a deep and abiding emotion, not a momentary flourish. He covered the four feet between us in a flash. He was wearing a thermal underwear long-sleeve top, and as he moved toward me he pulled his right arm out of its sleeve and held the cuff in his left hand, with the rest of the material stretched free from his body. He wrapped this material around my neck twice and pulled it taut. The entire maneuver was one fluid motion and took a fraction of a second; Timmy was as swift, smooth, and silent as a ninja. I didn’t even feel fear, panic, or wonder. My world went black, and I was gone.
I awoke on the floor of my cell, alone. My skull felt two sizes too big and throbbed painfully. Blood pounded in my ears. There was no way for me to know how long I’d been unconscious, but I was sure it hadn’t been long – seconds, rather than minutes. A couple of guys from the deck stood outside the bars of my cell, watching me. Once they saw I wasn’t dead, they turned their attention back to the communal TV. Apparently, whatever was showing there was far more interesting.
My disorientation was dissolving in increments. I touched my neck, which felt raw and chafed. My esophagus was as dry as the Sahara. Moving my hand upward, I felt a lump on the side of my head, just above my right ear, which was extremely tender and painful to touch. Considering my position on the floor, I figured that I’d probably knocked my head on the toilet as I crumpled. My legs were as wobbly and unsure as Bambi’s on ice, but I managed to stand on them long enough to plop down onto my bunk. I sat there for a long time as equilibrium ebbed back into my life.
It was several hours before I approached some semblance of normalcy. During that time, everything seemed more intense – sounds were too loud, lights too bright, sense of touch overly sensitive. My thoughts were like a box of puzzle pieces, and I couldn’t find any edges to make them begin to resemble anything reasonable. My brain was trying to reject the notion that the incident had happened at all.
The idea that my buddy had choked me into darkness seemed impossibly absurd, but the physical evidence was impossible to refute. Perhaps it was the lapse in oxygenated blood to my brain, but a loopy logic kept circling back to the conclusion that I had gotten what I’d deserved. Only moments before Timmy’s attack, I’d wanted to similarly assault Jaymo for disparaging my wife. How then could I blame Timmy for reacting as he did when I questioned his wife’s virtue and his love for her? The easiest answer that I found was: I couldn’t.
Eventually I walked back into Timmy’s cell and sat on his toilet once more. The four other guys who shared the pod with us were collectively holding their breath in anticipation of more violence. Instead, Timmy and I sat in silence for a long time. When our eyes finally met, the shame and regret I saw in his eyes mirrored my own sentiments.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Yeah,” was his pained response. An uncomfortable quiet stretched between us awhile. Finally, Timmy began to speak stilted words of prayer. I joined in, and we traded back and forth to seek forgiveness, comfort, mercy, and strength to persevere. And, as only the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit can achieve, our differences were reconciled.
Timmy and I never again spoke of the incident, but I never forgot how quickly violence could erupt within the crucible of confinement, even between friends. It was a lesson I would see reenacted countless times over the years. Despite his propensity for violence, I still believe Timmy is innocent of the murder of his wife. The jury disagreed with me, as he was sentenced to 85 years in prison. Without a positive response to his appeals, Timmy is scheduled to be released sometime around his 120th birthday. The son he had with his late wife has become another statistic in the foster care system.