They dropped him from the work house, so early in the morning the sky was black. He walked until he found himself stranded on the median of a freeway entrance, cars streaming toward him with their blinding lights, like a video game where the enemies come straight at you, S.O.B.s just kept coming straight at you one after the other, bam, bam, bam.
He faced the traffic, the cars racing by, machines with people in them who were not him. He was the one not in a machine, the one dumped before dawn from the county jail, and where were all these people going so early? No one stopped for him. Not a single car.
He got himself west and north. A bus, he thinks, but that part is hazy in his memory, although there was a long while where they pestered him about every detail, jabbing him with questions that he couldn’t answer.
He knows this: by the afternoon of the day they released him he was somewhere in the random flux of the city, with no phone and no numbers to call. It had been a short stint inside, three months, and now he was out and starting again from zero. No place to go, no bed to sleep in, no hustle of his own. He had nothing but needs, which were not a thing. At release they’d given him the five dollars he had on his books and a shirt, because he hadn’t had one when he was arrested.
They had been raiding and clearing tents from the underpass, and he had tried to get past them and wound up eating the curb with a bloody face. From there it had snowballed. Possession. Resisting arrest. A bench warrant for a case so stale he’d forgotten about it.
He was barred from skid row, where he knew how to live. He was on the streets, but it might as well have been Jupiter. He bought a can of soda from a Holiday and a knife off another homeless guy outside a liquor store. He figured he needed something for protection, since he would be back on the streets He was thirsty, which was why he bought the soda. When it’s your last few dollars you’re not on a budget. It makes no difference how much the soda costs; you can’t make the money last.
The girl, that was all they wanted go know about, after it was all over and they’d picked him up again. The girl, the girl, the girl.
He was on the sidewalk when he saw her. She had her wallet out to put coins in a meter, and he figured the wallet had money in it.
This girl, he liked her is the truth. He liked the way her hair rolled all the way down her back in big curls, like water over rocks. He watched her lock the car and hit the button twice, like she wasn’t sure she’d done it correctly. Everything about her seemed unsure and fragile, but she was open; that as what he sensed. He said, Hey, and she turned toward him without fear, despite everything–him, with the county wristband, filthy, soaked in sweat. She did not judge him, he could see. So he asked her nicely for some money. She said, with some kind of accent, that she had none, and opened her wallet so he could see that it was true. Her last coins had gone into the meter. They stood next to the car, a new Mercedes, and from the look of her he was sure she was connected to money and could get him some. She said, I have to pick up my baby daughter. That was when he introduced the knife, just kind of showed it to her.
He and she were in her car now. She was driving, and he took the knife out and touched her with it lightly. He was just managing her, making sure she did the things he said. He suggested they go to a bank machine–there was one up ahead and no people near it–and the girl looked afraid, but she remained calm. She said, I don’t have bank cards. She had just arrived here, she said, from Hungary, and hadn’t set up a bank account yet. The car belonged to her sister’s husband. He grabbed her purse and rifled through it, and there was nothing, as she claimed. So they went on to some other plan, just whatever was next. That is, him telling her what was next, where to drive.
He had the knife pointed into her side. He didn’t intend to hurt her. As soon as he could get something off her, he’d leave her alone, let her go.
They parked in an area under the freeway, because he saw women working the traffic at a nearby bus stop and figured he’d have this foreign girl pick up a john and get some money from that. But then that seemed like a stupid idea, because what if she ran away or something, and the truth was he didn’t know what he was doing or how to control her. Him just sprung that morning, and she should have been listening to him and doing what he told her, but she kept trying to reason with him and interfere. She said, Please let me go. Please. I have to get my baby before my sister goes to work. Her lips trembled like she was very cold, though it was hot. What he wanted was the simplest thing in the world: money. The shock of his frustration made her cry, and her crying put him in a rage.
He didn’t mean to do it. He just needed her to understand. I make the decisions here. It’s what I say.
For the record, he barely touched her. But she struggled, and so he didn’t have a choice. He took her by the silky hair and knocked her head into the dash, and that was it. The car grew very quiet. You’d never know that kind of absolute quiet unless you’d experienced it.
He got on a bus, and then another bus. He wasn’t supposed to be in this part of town–that was a condition of his release–but it was the only place where he knew how to function. He merged onto skid row, tried to forget his troubles and be like any other fool there, looking for some hustle or other, roving until something happened. But the quiet of the car stayed with him. Her car key was in his pocket. It was the key to the quiet of a thing you can’t undo. Never once had he been able to undo anything. You want to take back what you’ve done, but you can’t. They don’t allow that.
Certain things he doesn’t remember and other things he can’t forget. Her putting coins into the meter slot. The skies above, and a gritty kind of light. City smog, he means. The gritty sun and the huge, ugly boulevard, empty of people, like God was directing him almost. No one there to intervene.
And the him suddenly alone in the front seat of the car. Alone, but with her next to him, no longer alive.
He walked. His hands were in his pockets, and whenever he touched the key he had to remember how quiet it was in the car, so he threw it away, but before he knew it they had him in detention, trying to get him to vomit up every single detail he could account for, who the hell he was and what the hell he was up to, and they talked at him like that until he started answering.
They never gave him a break, just kept coming at him like cars on the freeway with their brights on. Endless questions to confirm that he really did the bad thing, and they even wanted him to come up with reasons, like was he angry, was he sad, did he need money? Did she resist? Did she fight back? Had he planned to do it? At what moment was it a plan? Can he say at what exact moment of the twenty-seven minutes he was with the girl he knew he was going to kill her? Did he ever know? Did he simply get angry and yank like this? Or was it like this? How did he yank? And did he think he was yanking hard enough to kill her? To hurt her? To make her more compliant? And, after he yanked, was he aware that she was dead? When was he aware? What as on his mind? Who what when. Who where when why. That was how they wanted you to read books in school like a meal on a cafeteria tray.
He’d try to answer one question, and they’d use part of his answer to make his other answer wrong, and then he’d have to redo that answer, and that made a new question, and it was like trying to clean with a mop that only puts more stain on the floor. That was what it was. He could not outsmart them was the problem. They came at him from all sides, and used his own words to trick him into saying things he didn’t mean, and in the end they wrote the confession and he signed and that was it.
The questions started all over again with his lawyer, but different ones. About him and his history. Did you ever witness a murder or a rape or an assault? And then he was telling the lawyer things. That his aunt was his mom because his mom had died, and that he’d watched at age five from the couch while his uncle or whatever he was, his aunt’s person, beat her to death with a pipe, after which he was in a foster home, where they fed him uncooked squares of ramen, and he would open the little packet of flavoring for the soup and sprinkle it over his square brick of crunchy noodles. They didn’t have gas to cook the noodles was why. And they kept telling him he was learning-disabled.
Where? The lawyer asked him. Who told you that?
The teachers, he said. They tested him and said he needed special classes, but someone had to sign and his fosters only yelled, you could never ask them anything, and finally he left. He lived on the street, sleeping behind a dumpster near an overpass and going to school when he could mange it. But he was hungry and tired, and now they had him with new teachers who pretended he was deaf and dumb, and he thought, This is not my life. I’m not on the same people-mover. I’m on a different one. He spent his days wandering. Then, for a while, he had a safe and cozy place to sleep in the basement boiler room of a housing project. At first the people there seemed not to notice him, like he was invisible, maybe because they were old. 0ld people who shuffled and spoke in a strange language. But it turned out that they were old people with guns. They pointed one at him and said not to come back, and that began his skid row life.
Twelve years old, huffing glue out of a shared baggie, him and an old man in a wheelchair, and when he exhaled he felt the world finally start to relax and stretch and go soft. Just a little, enough that the hours were bearable.
The old man who shared the glue was missing a leg. Said, I lost it from drinking too much juice, then laughed at the boy’s confused look, this new knowledge that you could lose a limb from drinking juice. Don’t worry, the old man said, you ain’t gonna lose your leg. Kept laughing, one hand on the boy’s shoulder, as he breathed deep from the bag.
It was not a Hollywood movie like you see on the dayroom TV in jail. A story where he and the old man buddy up and meet a rich woman who thinks they should move into her mansion and raid her refrigerator. Or a movie where they buddy up and the old man finds out he’s a millionaire by inheritance and adopts the boy and they go live on a horse ranch. Or a movie where the old man is actually a detective working undercover on the streets as a glue-sniffing hobo and he takes the boy home to his beautiful wife and they raise him to live right, and he goes to college and wears a suit and calls the old hobo Dad.
The old man is just one memory he still possesses, and probably he has it on account of the glue, not the man. It was wood glue, and it made him feel soft about the world and about himself for the first time in his life, and who knows what happened to that old man. He doesn’t care. He was just some bum out of the thousands on skid row. They weren’t really people to him. They were just connections, hazards, problems, odors, crowding into his space under the overpass. The glow of a cigarette in the dark, the sound of yelling and arguments, because all people do on skid row is fight.
He exists now in the world of continuous noise that is prison life. A jangle of alarms and slamming and confusion, and inside it a pit of nothing.
He’s life without parole, so that’s it. This into the future. The only changing thing is who bothers him and what they make him do. Can’t take away goodtime credit, since he’s never getting out, and so he’s useful. They make it do or die. That’s how the gangs work.
He jogs the track. Sweat dripping off him as he surveys the yard, its bad energies rolling and flowing, his mind a tunnel down which orders boom and echo, to comply or not to comply, depending.
He refuses to think about that girl any further than the fact that her death made people angry at him. He was angry already, so now everyone can see that the world is as ugly outside as it is for him inside, but if he could do it over, which he can’t, he would just keep walking when he saw her feeding the meter with her coins. Not because it would change his life. Only God knows what might change his life, and maybe not even God. But to prey on the weak, that was wrong. Although, in way, he had thought of her as strong, not weak, because she was rich, and therefore lucky. But to make her lights go out was a mistake. Most people don’t know what a real mistake feels like. He knows.
In court he had stood up and said he was sorry to the woman’s family–the sister and the sister’s husband–and he hoped someday they could forgive him. The boy that would be their now because its mother was dead was in the sister’s arms. The sister patted it like she was comforting it for its loss. Or maybe just to keep it from crying in the courtroom.
The lawyer had gone over his statement with him, and when it was time he got up and spoke it. The people, the sister and her husband, they looked at him as if what he said mattered. They’d looked at him as if he could offer them something, and standing there, with those people looking at him, he’d known it was the right thing for him to speak. He’d had the power in the car with the girl, and it extended somehow to a power he had over her family, who wanted to hear his voice, wanted to close the loop that connected him to the girl in her last moments. He had been there when she died and they hadn’t, and he understood that he had that link to her, which they didn’t have. I was there, he told himself, and out of his mouth came Sorry.
The future lasts a very long time, and where does his sorry fit into that? He’s not sure. It’s all done, her life, and his, too. He hates in a diffuse cloud, a haze of it. He feels it like sweat coming from the pores of his face and neck as he jogs, streaming down into his eyes, and from his pits and from his crotch, too, which sweats the most–it’s a sweatbox down there. He tugs at his briefs to open things up and get some air.
He jogs not for health but so he can defend himself. He jogs so as not to die on C Yard.
Things are clearer now. Pared down. Simple. He has to take orders and he doesn’t like the orders, but they promise life. If you want to live, when you get the message you do what it says. Kill, usually. He got one this morning.
It’s not easy to kill in prison. These guys on C Yard are exceptionally strong, and they refuse to go down. They get taken into medical and given new blood to replace what they lost and maybe a couple hundred stitches. A week later they’re back on the yard, playing basketball or doing pushups, and you have trouble, real trouble. If you have an order to kill, you better be sure the job is done right, meaning fully and to the end, until the person’s heart is not beating. This requires many rounds of stabbing with a handmade weapon, a file-sharpened hinge, for instance, with melted-down CD cases molded around its base as a grip.
Another thing that makes stabbing someone on the yard difficult is you have to do it fast, before the staff and guards come running to stop you. You have to do it fast, but it is slow work. The deeper the knife goes in, the better you are doing your job. But after each stab inward the thing has to be pulled out again, and with even more force than was needed to push it in. People don’t realize that. Someone who has worked in a butcher shop would know. After every blow you have to pin the body to get your weapon back, while the muscle and tissue hold, on to the knife. Try doing that a hundred times, two hundred times, and with a homemade weapon, a tool that has to be used carefully because if your handle breaks you can’t finish the job. Something else that surprised him is how dull it sounds when you stab someone with a shank, how dense and damp. Thud. Thud. Thud. Like trying to run through mud in a dream.
He knows how many times you have to stab a man in order to kill him, because everything happens on video: stabbed a hundred and sixty-eight times, stabbed two hundred and forty-one times. They make the prisoners involved watch the footage. This sets people up and arranges hits this way. Because everyone can see right there in the video who helped and who didn’t, and if you didn’t help, if you stood by and didn’t fight, you’re green-lighted.
He doesn’t understand why it’s green and not red, because green is go and red is stop, and when they green-light you your life is over.
He has learned the hard way to do what they tell him, and now he is good at the demanding labor of stabbing. He knows you have to rest when you are stabbing to kill with a homemade shank. You stab, stab, stab, then rest. Stab. Stab, stab, then rest. It’s tiring, slow work, and the person being stabbed, at first he resists, but after a while his body is somehow with you. It says, Keep going. Good work. You can do it. O.K., take a break. Almost there. Almost there. The body coaches you with its slow breathing and the way it lets you pin it down, it cooperates toward the goal. The person doesn’t want to die, but his body has already made a deal with you. At least, that is how it feels, like he and the body are talking back and forth. Maybe it’s a talent. One thing he’s good at. Talking to a body while he takes the life out of it.
Want to avoid carrying out a hit? Good luck. First, you have to debrief. To debrief you have to care even less about yourself and about the world than you do in order to kill. Everyone despise you for it, especially the cops. Then you go to a prison for snitches. You can’t ever be transferred out, after, or that’s it for you. Still, it is the only option, but most people don’t take it.
This order, he could get the chair for. But he’s heard they don’t really use the chair; they just move you to a special wing. And the word is that it’s quiet on that tier, no trouble, and they have frozen burritos. The prisoners share food there. They pass those frozen burritos through the plumbing. So he’s going to do the very best job he can. He thinks about frozen burritos while he sharpens the weapon he will use.
But then there is a lockdown and no one is allowed out in the yard. He’s not going to be able to carry out the order. He sits, tries to think, but he has never found thinking easy. You tell yourself think and you’re just going, Think, think, which is not thinking. He hears the jangle and sees Sergeant Agus through the bars. Agus is his hit. And suddenly he’s there, opening the cell.
He says to Agus, What? He says this to cover the fact that he just put the shiv in his waistband. You make a sound and make it loud and it hides what you’re doing somehow. It works. It makes him seem casual to say, What? When he’s not casual.
You’re coming out, Agus says.
Everyone is on lockdown. Every single prisoner but him. Guys look at him from the bars of their cells as he walks, Agus behind him. He’s close custody, but for some reason his hands are free. And he’s got just one officer on him, not two. No one on the hall. Just him and Agus and he’s not cuffed.
This is unscheduled. This is never before.
And so he goes for it. He goes all the way for it. Turns around and lunges at Agus. He’s on him and just by pure luck hit’s the soft part of Agus’ neck with the weapon and it goes in so easily he gasps. His gasp is almost as loud as Agus’ gasp, it is just–so soft there. The point is straight through Agus’ neck. Like in bullfighting. He’s seen it on TV, those spears they put in the bull’s neck to piss it off, make it angry but weak. His weapon goes right into Agus’ neck and comes out easy, too. So he does it again, and again, and keeps going until the bull is down.
Agus, he does resist. Even as the knife is in deep, he bucks up, and his arms jolt backward, but then, after a moment, he lets go, with a long sigh, a you win. You win.
He feels that the time for questions is past. That was on the border between outside life and inside life, after the girl with her river of hair, that whole junkyard afternoon on Jupiter. No one asks him what his plan was for Agus. They know his role. He’s an animal that kills on command. They found the order green-lighting Agus. The incident, as they call it, is on closed-circuit video. They don’t seem to care much about him. This whole thing is a war between the prison and the shot callers. A game.
For a crime inside the prison they take you to the county courthouse. The people in the courthouse look at him like he’s a caged monster, and he feels like one. He glowers at them or stares at the floor. His feet hurt because his shoes pinch. His eyes hurt, or it’s really behind his eyes that hurts, like there’s a cord behind each eye, tugging backward. He wants to get to death row, find some quiet. Be out of the game.
New lawyer meets with him before the trial. Peppers him with questions. Like about his intelligence quotient, as the lawyer keeps saying. Kwo-shent.
In his file, it says he’s got extremely high intelligence, the lawyer tells him.
It’s news to him.
A hundred and fifty-seven, the lawyer says. That means you’re some kind of incredible genius. But you completed almost no schooling. Third grade is your tested level of reading and math comprehension. And the only employment history in your file is “recycler”. You collected bottles and cans for a living.
Yes, sir, he tells the lawyer in a booming affirmative. He likes a question that’s answerable. He pushed carts all night and took them to the recycling center when it opened. When he was working. When he was working, that was what he did.
The lawyer says that the reason they took him out of his cell during lockdown was on account of that number, 157. The watch commander had this idea that, since he was a level-four Life Without Parole and validated gang member with such an unusually high I.Q., he was definitely a shot caller. The watch commander thought he could talk to a rival leader on D yard and head off a riot.
I ain’t no shot caller, he tells the lawyer, the longest sentence he has spoken to this man.
At the trial, his lawyer blames the murder on the watch commander. Says the watch commander made a grave error, decided that this man, my client, who is mentally disturbed and has an I.Q. of 57, was some king of calculating genius with an I.Q. of 157. Someone tries to object–it’s one of the D.A.s. He says that intelligence is not tests but actions, and the defendant is obviously smart enough to make a weapon and murder a peace officer, and if that’s not proof of cunning, well, then he–the lawyer is interrupting, Your Honor, let me finish–well then he, the D.A., doesn’t know what cunning is. To murder a sergeant on a maximum-security cell block sure seems like it would take some cunning. But the judge allows the defense lawyer to speak. The lawyer shows the judge a paper, maybe the test results that prove he’s not smart enough to get the death penalty. The judge asks, so how was it changed? and the lawyer says that someone in the clerk’s office made a mistake. They thought 57 seemed too low, it looked like a typographical error, and so they fixed it by adding a one to the number, and made a new mistake.
So his I.Q. is 57? the judge asks, putting on eyeglasses to look more closely at the paper.
His original test, Your Honor, you’ll see here, says 57.
He does not get moved to death row after all.
They transfer him to Oak Park. All night in a cage, a metal-and-mesh box that you ride in alone when you’re a problem, like he is now a problem. Guns pointed at him the whole way. No bathroom stops, No water. Nothing. Over three hours on a bus, alongside other cages, and then the body count. Body receipts. The weapons bucket going up to the gun tower.
A bird flies over, and he strains his neck to see it out the bus window.
Gull, the body in the cage across the aisle says. Grunts it, like he’s spitting sunflower seeds. Gu-ll.
Body in the cage right next to him grumbles something. Sounds like Hell’s that, or what’s that. He’s not sure. The guy is wearing a spit hood, so his words are muffled. The new spit hoods are creepy. Black mesh you can see out of, if you’re wearing it, but people can’t look in.
Oak Park is where shot callers go. And cop killers.
This body next to him in a spit hood: this is the last time he’ll be so close to another human, to anyone, after he is processed in. In the Segregated Housing Unit, you see no one. Cops tag-team you, but from behind. You turn around for your restraints, hands and ankles. Then they follow. You look at no one who is looking at you. He’s done Segregation terms, and understands what is required to survive. But this term has no fixed end. He will be in there for decades.
They go one by one, and now it’s his turn. The gull, he sees as he steps off the bus, has landed on the corner of the roof of Receiving.
He wants to wave. Say, Hey, bird. But his hands are cuffed to his waist and around it is a stun belt. if he jerks too quickly his own restraints will zap him.
The gull takes flight.
He can hear the wings like two garbage bags being shaken open to line a can. Fawap, fwap. Fwap fwab fwab fwab. The thing flies right over him, low, and perches above the door of the building. It’s maybe twenty feet up. He feels a rush of excitement and makes a sound, not voluntary. He has stopped moving and is looking up to see it when a cop slams him in the head with a baton. Go! the cop yells at him. Move! The bird startles from the noise, but it doesn’t stray far, just to a different corner of the building. Crazy thing looks like it escaped from a cartoon on television.
The cop is about to Taser him, so he walks.
Everyone in Receiving is in cages. He is shoved into his with extra force. They hate him. He understands. He’s the thing they have to transport and put in its concrete slot, feed through a flap, let it loose on its dog run twice a week. Guy in the spit hood emits a strangled yell as two Correction Officers in clear face shields bring him in. He gets cracked with a taser stick and quiets down. Bodies in cages, groaning and restrained and counted, and still, he knows, still they will find a way to fight back. He’ll do what he has to, and so will the bodies in the cages around him. They’ll put him in the Segregated Housing Unit, and he’ll get to work because the kite orders will arrive. And cops will set him up, which is what they do to cop killers. Set you up to get wiped out. You can make a knife out of anything. He’s seen a guy do great damage with a knife made out of toilet paper. No lie. He’s seen at least a dozen guys charge through a thick cloud from a dispersion grenade like it was nothing. The gas had a white powder in it that stuck to sweaty skin and burned it, and these guys were covered in the white stuff, like zombies, and just kept charging, chasing their hit. Watched another man climb a electric fence and somehow not get shocked, or maybe it was shocking him but he was unkilled by the voltage. Later they said he’d grounded himself or skipped the live wires; it was a mystery. The higher he climbed, the tighter he gripped. In the end, the shooter in the guard tower took him out. But if he and that shooter had had a contest and climbed up an electric fence together, who do you think would have got farther? That’s right. There is no contest. Prison turns its prisoners superhuman, and that’s the truth. That is the truth.