This excerpt is from Candy and Blood. Available for purchase on Amazon now.
I was caught in Healthcare, stuck there during a scheduled institutional count. What’s worse is that my visit was an unscheduled one made necessary by a gaping wound on my finger that had resulted when I accidentally slammed my hand between two dumbbells. Dumb indeed.
Because this was an unexpected situation, I hadn’t been able to plan ahead and bring a book to pass the time as I waited the hour or more for count to clear and movement to resume. That meant I only had a few fellow inmates, who were also unfortunate enough to get caught, to keep me occupied with gossip and varying degrees of intelligent conversation. I was mostly content to sit silently with my own thoughts as entertainment, augmented perhaps with a bit of eavesdropping on the handful of guys assembled in the Healthcare waiting room. Enjoying my own silence was not to be, however, as David sat on the bench next to me.
There were plenty of other spaces to sit, so I was immediately wary of his mental well-being. In hearing the chatter between C/Os over the radio, I knew that at least some of the men stuck with me were from the psychiatric portion of the prison. Without trying to perpetuate a stereotype, many of these inmates have a signature look comprised of jittery body and eye movements and generally appear to be drugged. Having difficulty staying focused on one topic of conversation during a discussion is another big indication that the inmate’s mind may be muddled by a mental health issue, psych meds, or a combination of the two. In this way, these inmates can be like big children—and like children, they too can be difficult to deal with. David began normally enough, which put me somewhat at ease.
“What’s up, man? What happened to you?” he asked, indicating the gauze cocooning much of my hand.
“Oh, lifting weights,” I replied. “Got it pinched between two dumbbells.”
“Think I saw bone,” I said, a bit of bragging in my tone.
“Niiice,” he said with a good-natured chuckle. I joined with a muted grinning guffaw of my own. Male bonding at its finest. Suddenly we were buddies.
It turned out that he had arrived at this particular facility three days before, and as such, he still had numerous practical questions about how things were run at this prison. How quickly does commissary run? What’s the selection like? What are gym and yard like? How are the weights? (Heavy and painful). What are the C/Os like, in general? How about the shakedowns? Compliance checks? All essential information for a convict to procure. David’s line of questioning let me know that he had served time at some point, and before long he began to give me the background on how he ended up back behind prison walls.
It wasn’t exactly a unique tale. In fact, it’s one that I’ve heard in various variations countless times. He was on parole—doing well, staying clean. He’d gotten a job, was paying the bills, and was living with his wife, who had seen him through his first prison stint of two years. Perhaps not particularly thriving, but surviving—doing better than many parolees. Then he faltered, violated his parole, and was sent back to prison once more. Here, however, is where David’s narrative became a tragedy all his own. He divulged it to me, a relative stranger, as if unburdening himself of knowledge he felt too tired to carry any longer. His blunt honesty and openness made me uncomfortable as he reached out in pain and grief.
“My mom got sick,” he began, and I felt the pit of my stomach fill with heavy dread; I knew his story couldn’t possibly end well. “It was cancer. Her and my sister both have it. Had been fighting it. Then, it was sudden, my mom…she was just gone. She went to the hospital, and never came back out again.” David paused, his eyes glassy and staring off at the terrible memory for a moment before continuing. “So I went and got good and drunk. I don’t really think I’m an alcoholic, never been to A.A. After I got out of the joint the first time I had a few beers sometimes, but it was no big deal. After my mom…that’s why I’m back. DUI.” There was a brief pause as he gathered his thoughts, but I didn’t dare intrude on his account, which had taken on the hushed tones of a confessional.
“I was at the intake joint for two weeks, waiting to be shipped out somewhere. I missed my mother’s funeral. When I called for the weekly ten-minute phone call they let you have, my dad told me my sister had died. She was only thirty-two. It was the cancer again. I guess it came back.” David took a deep breath and sighed it out in a huff before pressing forward with the final awful portion of his story. He tried to finish it before emotion overtook him and his tears began to fall.
“It’s been ten days since then. I just got here three days ago, was finally able to get on the phone yesterday. My dad answered, and I could hear that he was crying. First thing he said: ‘I’m so sorry, son.’ My wife,” David’s voice broke as he uttered the words, but he swallowed past it before he continued. “She had an abscess in her lung. She’d already had surgery. I thought it was all finished, everything was fine, but…something about complications. My dad said she had just died the day before. She was thirty-eight. I’m writing the warden now to see if I can get permission to go to the funeral, but I don’t think I’ll be able to get the money in time. It costs like a couple thousand to go.”
David stared at the floor for a while before looking up to meet my eyes, and I didn’t dare look away. “I lost them all in under a month.” His voice was a hollow, hoarse whisper. He wasn’t raging to the heavens and asking, “Why me?” or blaming his misfortune on anyone or anything. He was just hurting, and reaching out for human compassion in a cold, unloving place.
Sometimes words seem so incredibly inept at conveying what we feel, but words are all I had. “I’m so sorry, man. I’m just…so sorry.”
He accepted my paltry condolences with a nod of his head. “Yeah,” was all he said.
I think of David sometimes, and I pray for him. At the risk of sounding self-centered, his many losses remind me all the more of everything I have to be thankful for, the blessings that constantly surround me—even behind prison walls.