In the Vegas Room
She came over, clad like a cowgirl arriving from a hoedown, all flares and fringes, except for her Santa Claus cap.
In the Vegas Room
Christmas Eve, 1967
By Dell Franklin
On Christmas Eve Marshak and I sat in a booth in the Vegas Room in the rundown section of Long Beach off Pacific Coast Highway. The Vegas Room had tables, scuffed dance floor, piano bar, and, for good cheer, a plastic Christmas tree and strings of tinsel and the usual dime-store decorations. The lounge was dark enough that nobody could get a close look at one another, which possibly helped those trying to get laid, though Marshak and I had not gotten laid since our discharges from three-year Army hitches a few months past. Because we were best friends before enlisting, we’d decided to become roommates, renting a second-story slum apartment overlooking a beer bar called the Hull. Earlier in the evening I had eloquently recited portions of my novel to Marshak, and he had encouraged me, intimating, it was good, but now the bastard was turning on me, grousing about my destroying one used typewriter after another and tossing it out the window in a fit of rage.
“You’re probably too immature, too self-obsessed, too inexperienced, too out of touch with reality to write a novel at this point. Maybe you should go to college and take up journalism and be a sports-writer. After all, you were once a big time jock. Why not scribble about what you know, instead of driving yourself nuts and alienating the human race with this goddam novel you’re writing…the…”
“That title alone eliminates half the readership in the country, automatically. What agent or publishing house is ever gonna peek at something written by an unknown like you, with a title like that?”
“Go fuck yourself, Marshak.”
“I mean, you know sports. But what do you know about women, besides getting rejected and paying for prostitutes?”
“What do YOU know about women, besides getting rejected and paying for prostitutes, you miserable puke, ey?”
“I’m not the one writing a novel.” He took a contemplative drag from his Camel, issued smoke into the dense pall overhead, flicked ashes patiently into his plastic ashtray. “Maybe if you took the time to talk to women like a human being, tried to understand them, stopped either trying to impress them, or intimidate them, or kiss their asses just to get laid, you might learn enough about them to really write a novel, and you can call it the WOMAN LOVER, ha ha ha.”
Marshak owned a bachelor's degree in marine biology, while I’d been booted off my college baseball team and seen a once promising career as a professional ball player go down the drain. Both of us, as jocks, had boozed it up in high school, but the Army had turned us into foul-mouthed alcoholics and unleashed us on the public.
“I’m also sick and tired of your volcanic rages, while I’m trying to study,” he went on. He was going for his masters at Long Beach State on the G.I. Bill, his only source of income. Short, stocky, his thuggish Slavic looks belied his intellectual capacity to read and understand Nietzsche, listen to Mozart and Beethoven, and memorize thick scientific texts, as well as discourse on any subject, special-izing in sports and politics. “Everybody in that apartment building gives me dirty looks during the day,” he groused, gazing around as the lounge filled up, with a few younger gals coming in. “Why should I get dirty looks because you’re a deranged, demented, psychotic, suffering artist trying to be like like Jack Kerouac.
“Who gives a shit about a bunch of lowlifes? Besides, the biggest lunatic in the complex, Art, lives next door to us.”
Art was ex-career Navy and drove semis cross country. Alcoholic speed freak homosexual. Bald, stringy, sallow, chinless, terrible posture, downright repulsive. Sometimes, when Marshak and I were engaged in titanic drunken shouting matches, he knocked on the door, fearful of a homicide, and sometimes he knocked on the door to invite us over for drinks when he was plastered, and when he was plastered his feminine hormones transformed him into a flouncy, flamboyant co-quette. Sometimes he brought sailors home from dives down on Ocean Boulevard and became involved in violent sado-masochistic brawls that shook the apartment building to its foundations.
“Art wanted us to join him on a nightclub tour of Ocean Boulevard tonight,” Marshak said. “You should’ve gone with him. Good new material for the WOMAN HATER, and you might even get in on some action, ha ha.”
“Maybe YOU should’ve gone with him, Marshak. At least you’d stand a better chance of getting laid than you will in this rat-hole.”
He puffed his cigarette, gazing around sourly as the joint began to rollick with more dancers. “Yeh, this place is a real pit, but what else is open on a dismal, putrid night like this, ey? I’ll tell you what—dumps for a buncha desperate hard-up pitiful motherfuckers, like us.”
Folks in the Vegas Room were staring at us. Because we’d been in the Army, we were loud, used to yelling to he heard over the din. A few single women sat in clumps, faced away from us, no doubt discouraging our asking them to dance to such favorites as “Funny Valentine,” “Scotch and Soda,” and peppy and syrupy Christmas songs crooned by the piano player, a dissipated looking dude around 50 with a white carnation in the lapel of his suit.
The waitress brought us shots of bourbon from a weathered, middle-aged woman who sat with a man at a nearby table. We raised our tumblers to her and swilled. She came over, clad like a cowgirl arriving from a hoedown, all flares and fringes, except for her Santa Claus cap.
“You look so sad, so unhappy,” she said. “Please be happy?”
“We’re trying, ma’am. Thanks for the drinks.”
“Yeh, thanks for the drinks, ma’am.”
“Why you so sad, boys? It’s Christmas Eve. A time to rejoice. You should be happy.”
We couldn’t think of anything to say.
“You wanna wear my Santa Claus cap?” she asked, full of sympathy.
We shook our heads, issued thank yous.
“One of you handsome lads like to dance with me?”
“I can’t dance, ma’am,” I said.
“We’re stumblebums,” Marshak told her.
Now her husband was there, in a Western suit, bolo tie, false teeth, Santa cap covering a white mane of hair. “Now, now, Ruby. Leave the boys be, hon,” he said in a kindly manner.
“But honey pie, they look so down in the dumps. It just breaks my heart when I see somebody so sad on Christmas Eve. Maybe the poor boys got nowhere to go, honey. I just wanna cry, I surely do.”
“Now, now.” He led the poor woman away.
The piano player launched into a request—“White Christmas.”
“I hate that goddam song almost as much as I hate Christmas,” Marshak snarled. “Why doesn’t that guy play something like he’s supposed to, like ‘The Girl From Ipenema’?” The waitress plopped down beers on our table, doing an excellent job of concealing her loathing of us with a stiff, polite smile. We’d tipped her as well as possible for being dirt poor, myself working as a stock boy for a hundred bucks a month. “I hate to say it,” Marshak went on. “But we were probably better off in the Army. At least we could buy a ten-dollar hooker.”
“We hated the Army.”
“We hate everything.”
A group of four in the booth beside us gaped over, appalled. The women were upset, nudging their beaus. All of them smoking.
“Why shouldn’t we hate everything, Marshak? The country’s going down the tubes, like the last days of the Roman empire. The blacks are burning down their cities, the whites are fornicating, guys coming home in body bags from ‘Nam; and these goddamn degenerate hippies, they’re talking all this altruistic love and peace bullshit, like civilization is ever going to change and stop being a bunch of murderous depraved barbarians! Only reason those scrawny bastards are hippies is so they can get laid!”
One of the men in the booth beside us, dressed in a baggy polyester suit, stood. “For God’s sake! It’s Christmas Eve!” he exclaimed. “You’re depressing everybody with your talk. Give it a rest! We been listening to you two for an hour now and we can’t take it any longer. Christ, I’ll buy you a round if you just change the subject and have mercy!”
“Sorry,” Marshak said.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Hey, I was in the Army in Korea,” he said, more reasonable.
“You’ll adjust. I know it’s tough. Give it time. Things are good.”
He rejoined his crew. When our round came, we raised our beers and swilled. We looked around. Everybody in the place, it seemed, at least 50 people by this time, were staring at us. We chugged our beers and skulked out.
On our way to the Hull, we picked up a pint of Walker’s 10 High.
At a storefront on PCH, where many of the business windows were boarded up, two slinky, attractive women popped out and accosted us. One was Asian, probably Japanese, and the other was blonde and built, and had a German accent. They were aggressive, charming, and literally dragged us through the door and into a hot, spacious room, where some sort of religious revival was going on. The girls each had us by the hand, and we were overwhelmed as they pulled us through a crush of folks, sweaty and singing. At second glance, the place seemed a lunatic asylum unsupervised. The howlings and wolf calls were terrifying.
Up front, in a raised area behind a counter, was this huge German guy with crazed sky-blue eyes, long blond goatee, dressed in a shabby pin-striped suit. He shook our hands with his enormous paw and the two women disappeared. Then the big German tried to browbeat us into some evangelical nonsense. His face came at us like a big hump-nosed frightmask, hair askew. We couldn’t understand him, except that he wanted us to join the club and find Jesus. We edged away. He called us anti-Christs.
“You have no foundation!” he shouted. “You are fish-eye loo-sers!”
We backed away from his powerful, booming voice, which carried over the hellish din of the holy rollers. “You have no spine, you are weaklings without Christ. You will neffer find a woman! You will neffer find peace and happiness! You burn in hell!”
We thrashed through the crowd and scurried back onto the sidewalk and down the last few blocks to find refuge in the Hull, perhaps the most decrepit beer bar in all of Long Beach. A horseshoe in a hut.
Filled with rat-nosed, pot-bellied, fish-scale white alkies on their last legs. No Christmas decorations here. We stood, ordering draft from the shrill, harridan barmaid, Maggie. It was that time of night, well after midnight, when they were all on the verge of fighting each other in the grassy patch that separated our apartment building from the Hull. Often, around eleven, Marshak and I stood by our window and listened to the garbled arguing, and came down for a beer to observe the fights—usually harmless slow-motion affairs.
All these guys had weathered horrible childhoods and worse lives and had ended up here, in the Hull, after careers as oil workers on Signal Hill, slugging it down, bitter, angry, rancid, spoiling for any kind of confrontation that would lead to their lackluster fisticuffs, which never seemed to do any damage, and, most likely, were forgotten immediately as they returned to their stools for more booze, until Maggie flushed their asses into the street and sent them to their dumpy boarding houses and tenement garrets.
Whenever Marshak and I dropped in for a beer and entertainment after studying and writing, they hardly acknowledged us, for we had not paid our dues, suffered the way they had, and they were no doubt confused by our young beings drinking in such a god forsaken dive where hopelessness and demise reigned supreme.
Soon, like clockwork, Buck and Barney were engaged on the grassy patch, swinging, missing, falling down, rolling around and grappling, huffing and puffing, wheezing and gasping for breath as their faces flushed bright red, and members of the crew who had emptied out of the bar began pulling them to their feet.
“That was one of the worst fights I’ve ever seen,” Marshak re-marked, as we stood in the cold night, mugs in hand, traffic slashing down PCH. “Christmas Eve deserves better than this.”
“What a dismal night. Let’s get the fuck outta here.”
We trekked up to the room with our bottle and found some half quarts of Bud in the fridge and stood by the window watching Hull regulars mill around in blind staggers, babbling incoherently.
Marshak and I had nothing better to do now than talk. Soon we were arguing over who knows what. Politics. Sports. Literature. Marshak indicated that as an aspiring writer I was pompous, judgmental, an ignorant know-it-all, but what gnawed at me incessantly was that we both knew everybody, including my big league baseball playing father, felt I should have been playing in the Majors by now, instead of toiling at a menial job and writing crap. The sense of disappointment and failure was lacerating, and I was constantly flagellating in the abyss of vicious rage and mawkish self-pity while faced with the long, tortured march to become a real writer, in my or anybody’s eyes.
I had Marshak cornered, and in his eyes was recognition I was on the verge of strangling him as we cursed and shouted. I was halted by some furious pounding on the door, which shook the room. I dashed to the door and ripped it open, and there stood our neighbor, Art, toting a quart bottle of Southern Comfort. Clammy and frightened.
“For god’s sake!” he squealed. “I thought somebody was getting KILLED in here!”
I pointed at Marshak, who was still in the corner. “I’m gonna kill that miserable wretch if he doesn’t stop goading me, Art!”
“But Day’uhl,” he said so soothingly, touching my shoulder. “He is yer friend, yer brother. Ah know, deep in mah heart, y’all love each other like brothers.”
“Art, don’t make me puke.”
Art placed the bottle on the lone card table in front of the sofa. We only had two plastic cups, so I used my badly crusted, stained coffee cup that had served me in the Army and had never once been washed, out of superstition, and poured three triple shots. Marshak played some Sinatra on our scratchy stereo, because Art liked romantic, sentimental songs. We settled in, Art holding court, standing over us, hyper as a humming bird, as Marshak and I sat apart on the sofa.
“You boys, yer mah-frenz. Y’all know ah feel so good knowin’ y’all live next door. Y’all know if ah git in any kinda trouble y’all’ll come to mah rescue, like good sons, like m’own sons who won’t talk to me cuz ah’m queer.”
As always, he become sloppy and saccharine, talking about how he missed and loved his beloved Texas, and the Longhorn and Cowboy foot-ball teams. He loved the flag, and America, was proud to be a veteran, and knew we were this way also. He especially loved Christmas, missed his family in Texas and admitted he was lonely an’ oh so thankful he found us tonight, because, after all, Christmas was a time of love, to be shared with friends, and we were his best friends, and just because he was an ugly old queer nobody wanted anything to do with, it didn’t mean he was after us, because he wasn’t, not one bit, and we knew that, and told him so, and toasted our friendship, and the bottle went down…and well into the wee hours Art invited us over for breakfast the next day so we could watch the pro football game on his TV, since we didn’t have one, and this seemed a good idea, and we agreed, toasting again, though there was a possibility we would be blessed by being so hungover we’d sleep through Christmas day. §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Washing windows across America: Cajun football
There are sounds like “booley-boo” and “yakkety-yak” peppered into their sentences. Damn if I’m not sitting with a bunch of real life Cajuns.
They looked not afraid or overconfident, but annoyed and burdened, as if they’d been walking around with pebbles in their shoes for some time.
By Ben Leroux
In the summer of 2003, I discarded all I owned and loaded a troubled 1975 Plymouth with clothes, books, a guitar, a cat named Reggie, and $17.94 worth of window-cleaning equipment. I drove across the United States, stopping in nowhere towns, pail and squeegee in hand, cleaning windows for another day’s pittance. Free of any attachments, I floated vaguely east, wandering in a private stratum without itinerary or expectation. I became a true outsider, a fugitive from the banal, suffocating cycle of madness that passes for a “normal life” today in America.
Three hours before kickoff time, the blank adolescent behind the counter at McDonald’s gives me mumbled directions to the high school football stadium. After dropping used wrappings and a copy of the Limestone Times sports section into the garbage, I get in the Plymouth and follow them. I’d been in Louisiana a day and hadn’t seen a bowl of gumbo or heard a word of Cajun French. Texas hadn’t been much better. There, I hadn’t found a bowl of Texas chili or a decent high school football game, which Texas was known for. My expectations of the country weren’t panning out.
The stadium parking lot is empty when I arrive, so I park in the shade, roll over onto my plywood bed, and sleep. The sleep is pleasant, and there’s a dream to it. It’s one of those rare surface dreams that is both relevant and non-cryptic. In this dream, the Plymouth cruises through bayou backroads stopping occasionally in front of clapboard zydeco taverns overlooking gator-infested swamps. Inside, they are dark and clammy and there is loud music from three-man Cajun bands. Gumbo and jambalaya are steaming from big pots and dark beer is being poured from kegs into frosty mugs for a crowd of hospitable Cajun and Creole mongrels. There is reckless dancing and wanton advances between the sexes, and the thing that strikes me most about this dream is that there is both smell and sound to it. There’s fiddle and washboard and laughing, and the smell of andouille sausage smoking over grills. I don’t want to wake, but near the end, I feel the eyes of a dispassionate Cajun family looking into my Plymouth. Muttering bad English and worse French, they gets an eyeful of me and walk off toward a football stadium.
Yawning, I rise and follow the family toward the football stadium. It is dusk now, and the lot is filled with buses, motor homes, cars, and footballs sailing through a smoky air that pulsates with zydeco music. I pay ten dollars at the gate, climb the stadium stairs, and take a seat on the second row, where I attempt to acclimate from my deep sleep. All I knew I’d learned from the Limestone paper. With a win, the home team clinched a league title, their only obstacle being a troubled team of underachievers from a town called Babineaux, which according to the paper had been reduced to 18 players by injuries and academic suspensions, was on a two-game losing streak, and were 20-point underdogs.
Once my eyes clear, I am able to focus and see across the field, the towering bleachers of the home side, crammed with rigid torsos of purple and yellow. It’s what I get for asking the directions from the pimpled burger-flipper. He’d sent me to the visitor’s parking lot. I get up to go over and join the home team, but am jolted back to my seat by grating electric guitar and the high-pitched war-cry of Guns-N-Rose’s “Welcome to the Jungle.”
The racket causes the scattered few of us on the Babineaux side to curl up and put our hands over our ears while from a corner of the stadium, in dark purple jerseys and gold pants, the Limestone Bengals emerge 50-bodies strong. They jog into their stadium businesslike and perfunctorily, and circle their glowing emerald gridiron to an ovation from their standing fans. They are enormous white boys that look to have been bred by NFL geneticists, then reared in weight rooms. Their uniforms, stadium, field, lights, and sound system seems excessive for such young men—too much for high school football. I decide I will be more comfortable on the Babineaux side.
While the Limestone practices kicking and passing, the men, women, and children of Babineaux begin slowly filling our side of the stadium, and in them I begin to make out the mixed features of French and African, and the skin in shades of everything from alabaster to anthracite. Their hair grows in waves, kinks, and mullet-tails dangling from the backs of the grubby ball caps. There are sounds like “booley-boo” and “yakkety-yak” peppered into their sentences. Damn if I’m not sitting with a bunch of real life Cajuns.
There’s something else about them though as they climb the stadium stairs and take seats. It’s in their eyes. It has something to do with the game yet nothing to do with football. I can’t quite make it out. I keep watching. It’s not the right kind of attitude for a town about to run into a football buzzsaw like they were. They looked not afraid or overconfident, but annoyed and burdened, as if they’d been walking around with pebbles in their shoes for some time. They had the look of a town come to witness a public execution. Had they come tonight for some kind of closure? Against the Limestone Bengals, who were now circling their field once more like regal robots, before pounding back into their locker room to Judas Priest?
The poor bastards. And where was their team?
“I hope we beats the livin’ shit out these boys,” says a woman, filling two seats below me. She is charcoaled, rotund and gristly, and wears a red and black Babineaux Crows windbreaker. Cheerleaders, pep-squad girls, and other kids, who seem to be attracted to her, flock around. She puts a hand to her brow and shakes her head.
“I’m sorry, kids. There I go.”
“It’s OK, miss’Parnice,” two mocha-skinned cheerleaders coo while stroking her round shoulders. “It’s OK,”
“I know, but I told y’all to behave and there I go swearin’.”
Mrs. Parnice peels off her windbreaker and out fall big fat arms and huge breasts held intact by a red sleeveless sweater. She must be a school advisor of some capacity because as she surveys the stadium with a periscope-neck, she directs the leaders of certain student groups on positioning and behavior.
“And I’ll watch my mouth,” she says. “Lord know I will try.”
She stands and turns and scans the Babineaux crowd with hard eyes, as if searching for troublemakers and noting absences. Then her eyes fall on me.
“You a scout?”
“Where you from? La Tech?”
Mrs. Parnice doesn’t wait for an answer. She turns and faces the field, hands on her massive hips, and watches the Limestone Bengals come onto the field again, this time to Metallica, prancing provocatively, backpedaling with cleats tapping the sod like well-oiled pistons. They break into platoon formation and perform calisthenics, then with Marine-precision execute snapping agility drills. There is a collective groan from our side as they once again circle their field and file back into their locker room. Meanwhile, a squad of police officers walks across the field and takes position along the Babineaux sideline. A sigh of hateful irritation goes through the growing crowd.
“I don’t know why these motherf----,” Mrs. Parnice catches herself. “I don’t know why they hate us so much. They do this ever time we come here.” She looks at me again.
“They send you over? Limestone?” Anyone within earshot stops to look.
“I’m nobody,” I say. “Just here to see some football.”
“Yeah?” she says sitting down. “Well I hope you know, them cops is here to protect us-all from them-all. Not the other way around.”
For the next hour we sit and watch Limestone stretch and fine-tune for Babineaux’s massacre. Though Mrs. Parnice turns every few minutes to ensure decorum, the nettlesome hatred fermenting inside Babineaux grows. I ask the people on either side of me what the bad blood and the cops is all about. I even try Mrs. Parnice. But no one wishes to discuss it. Exacerbating all this is the fact that the Babineaux Crows are still nowhere to be seen, and no one really knows where they are. Rumors begin to circulate.
“They caught in traffic.”
“Stuck on the I-10.”
“Cops won’t let ‘em in.”
“There was a threat.”
“Keepin’em at a undisclosed site. For they safety.”
“I heard they at McNeese State.”
Mrs. Parnice turns on me.
“You from McNeese State? Who you here to look at? Butler? Cheesborough? You better watch Bedrau. He number 22.”
Mrs. Parnice grabs her ears and puckers as AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” roars through the stadium. She turns to see what we all see—that Limestone is back out of their locker room, but no longer warming up. They are on the field, lined up for the kickoff against a phantom opponent. The clock is set at twelve minutes, and the referees talk to the Limestone coaches while glancing at wristwatches.
Mrs. Parnice clutches her hands under her chin and trembles and starts to cry.
“Dear Lord, please don’t let us forfeit to these boys. Anybody but these boys, Lord.” Girls gather around and caress her back and shoulders and rest their sad heads on her meaty arms.
“It’s OK, miss’Parnice. It’s OK.”
Across the way, Limestone fans come to their feet when they see the referees coming onto the field, and their kicker placing the ball on the tee. The despondent heads of Babineaux fans begin to drop, and there is a feeling of gloom and embarrassment. I get up to find my way out, until I hear commotion from the top of the Babineaux side.
I fear for a moment that it may be the beginnings of riot, but it is too celebratory a commotion for that, with cowbell and air-horn, faces of hope, and people standing and watching a different corner of the stadium where, under the escort of four squad cars a basic yellow school bus appears, and drives onto the track.
Before the bus can stop behind the Babineaux end zone, lanky young arms of walnut, mahogany, yellow, caramel, and coal are reaching through bus windows, sliding them open. One by one, puffy black noggins begin poking out of windows and looking around. Through other open windows, sets of shoulder pads, helmets, and footballs are flying onto the track. Shirtless torsos then begin slithering out of windows and repelling down the side of the bus and onto the track. The bus door swings open and a coaching staff in red and black windbreakers sprints for the sideline, followed by the remainder of the half-naked Babineaux Crows.
Wriggling into jerseys and shoulder pads, tucking in shirttails, and slipping in mouthguards, all to the foot-stomping, cowbell-clanging, and air-horn blowing of their fans, seven Crows take the sidelines while eleven take the field. Coaches are still adjusting headsets when the referees sound their whistles. Babineaux’s return man, Bedrau, is still fastening his chin-strap when Limestone’s kicker sends pigskin into the lights.
Bedrau fields the ball and is immediately swarmed by purple and gold. For a moment he disappears. Then he ejects himself, and faking right then going left, he drops four bewildered Bengals to the grass and gains what little space he needs. Knees high, hips aswivel, he streaks into Limestone’s end zone and pandemonium erupts on the Babineaux side.
On the ensuing kickoff Babineaux levels Limestone’s all-state return-man and there is a tense hush from the Limestone side as he gets up slowly. Silently, I root for the kid to be unharmed. As a new Babineaux fan, I felt that if we didn’t anger Limestone early on, they might take it easy on us.
But someone on our side has a big mouth, “Stay down, son!” he yells to the fallen boy from the top of the bleachers. “Stay down!” There is riotous laughter until Mrs. Parnice turns and glares the man down with a wagging finger. The man looks down and sits, and the crowd quiets. In that man’s voice though, and in the laughter of the crowd, I could hear scars of the past—last year probably. I imagine it having something to do with a cross or a noose.
Whether through providence or adrenaline or both, the outmanned Babineaux Crows stand their ground, and with their quickness and flair, take advantage of Limestone’s unimaginative game plan. They overcome horrendous calls by referees, and at the end of the first quarter lead 17 to 7. They keep it up for the second quarter and just before halftime return an interception for a touchdown. Under police escort, they return to their bus ahead 24 to 7, with the Limestone side of the stadium eerily quiet.
During halftime Babineaux students shoot candy into the stands with an air-gun of some sort, and I watch carefully, hoping one doesn’t come my way. From the railing the Babineaux cheerleaders watch the Limestone flag corps perform to the “musical stylings of Mr. Paul Simon” as played by their xylophone-heavy school band. As yellow and purple flags twirl stiffly and out of sync, the Babineaux girls, out of sportsmanship, force their high, compressed bottoms to move to “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” Once the torture is over, they clap for Limestone’s girls and look up at Mrs. Parnice for approval.
“LSU,” Mrs. Parnice says, turning on me again, growling. “You here to look at Lafontaine.”
“I’m not a scout. Got nothing to do with any football program, alright?”
The words aren’t out of my mouth, when a package of M&M’s comes flying in my direction. Left-handed I reach into the aisle, paw the thing, snatch it out of the air, and reel it in like Jerry Rice. It gets quiet around me.
“It’s just reflexes,” I tell Mrs. Parnice, handing over the M&M’s. She gives me a huff.
“Now I know,” she growls lowly, ripping open the M&Ms with her teeth. “Now I know where I seen you. You coach over at Lafayette High School. Uh-huh. We play y’all next week.”
Satisfied, Mrs. Parnice swallows a mouthful of M&M’s, and turns around to see her team coming out of the school bus and taking the sidelines. Adoring little town boys come to the railing to get the attention of their heroes. The only reaction of Babineaux players is to look into the crowd and wink. They truly believe. On the other side, the Limestone battalion returns to the field with an urgent fear in their gait. The uneasiness can be seen even in the body language of their coaches.
But Limestone is an error-free machine with human tanks for running backs, and granite blocks for linebackers, and they start grinding away at the depleted Crows, whose seniors have to play both defense and offense. Playing as if they are the team that is in the lead, Limestone falls back on its trusty ground game and begins gaining a gradual, commanding momentum. They score touchdowns, and every three or four plays are aided by showers of penalty flags against Babineaux. Behind only 24 to 21, with five minutes left in the game, they advance to within twelve yards of Babineaux’s end zone.
“Aw hell, here we go again,” says Mrs. Parnice, trembling with her head in the crook of one of her leg-sized arms. “I’m sorry, girls. I didn’t mean to swear.”
“It’s OK, miss’Parnice,” say some clinging girls. “Hell ain’t too bad a word.”
“I know, I know. But why they hate us so much up here? Can someone please tell me why they hate us so much?” Mrs. Parnice’s pleas are answered by another downpour of yellow penalty flags.
“We can’t lose to these boys. We just cain’t,” says Mrs. Parnice as Limestone bores into the end zone and takes the 28 to 24 lead. The swagger of a league champion-to-be is back with the home team.
With three minutes left, the Babineaux Crows look to have little hope. They are an exhausted and worn team. But over the fatigue and the flag-littered field, they dig deep and begin making big plays that slice through minute openings in the seemingly impervious Limestone defense, and negate yards lost on penalties. If they are penalized ten, they gain twenty. If they are penalized fifteen, they gain thirty. They make spiteful first downs that send vindictive laughter through the Crow fans. With a little over two minutes left, Bedrau catches a long bomb in the end zone, and Babineaux regains the lead at 31 to 24.
With both sides of the stadium on their feet and two minutes on the clock, Limestone, aided by more penalties, plods downfield and swiftly pins the Crows up against their own goal line. With nothing but the formality of a final crushing touchdown remaining, they run a quarterback-keeper from the three-yard-line. Only this night, the quarterback gets separated from his blockers, and Bedrau and two other rangy jaguars use the opportunity to corral and gang-maul him. He loses the ball, and the Babineaux players recover it and raise it for their fans like a trophy.
Babineaux need only run a few plays for the win and the closure. 0Looks of relief are exchanged, and people are grinning and complete strangers are high-fiving me. Justice has been served. The thorn is nearly out of the paw, the pebble out of the shoe. Crow fans and Crow players begin to wave back and forth.
But we have forgotten about the referees, who really lay it on now, with piddling, nitpicky calls against the Crows. Boos start to break out, and the crowd grows defiant and restless as it looks as though Limestone will get another chance to score. The enraged Cajuns seem on the verge of charging the field, overtaking the police then going after the Limestone fans. I think about their culture’s rich history of recalcitrance and disobedience and don’t doubt for a minute they’d do it. They are very loud now. At some point though, their anger transforms into laughter, and some nearly cry as they hold their stomachs and stomp their feet in a chant.
“BO-RE-SARD!” it sounds like. “BO-RE-SARD!”
They are directing their chant toward the Babineaux bench where head coach Rich Bouressard is being restrained by three assistant coaches and four players while he reaches with clawed hands for the throats of referees, whom are all a safe distance away. In Limestone’s state-of-the-art lighting, a long purple vein bulging from Bouressard’s sweaty reddened neck is quite visible, as is the spit spraying from his mouth. The high-quality acoustics make the vilest of his expletives more than audible. It’s not until two cops come to assist, that Bouressard is contained. But by this time his boys, empowered by his tantrum, have swept into the end zone for another touchdown, and the win.
With the game technically over, Limestone tries for a symbolic last score. Sensing perhaps the volatility of the Babineaux fans, the referees make an absurd call against Limestone. The placatory gesture draws scornful titters, and Babineaux fans begin producing yellow flags from pockets, which they start throwing onto the field
“Keep yo damn flags!” they shout as one yellow flag after another lands onto Limestone’s pretty green field.
“Here go another one!”
“You cain’t stop our boys!”
“We don’t need no help from ya’ll!”
The referees clear the field of flags and the P.A. announcer warns our side that a personal foul penalty may be called. This only incites more laughter, quipping, and wisecracking from the Crow fans. It all ceases though, after Limestone’s big fullback, already signed with Auburn, lay groggily on the ground from a violent collision, favoring his rib cage.
Commendably, the Babineaux fans, who have been conditioned by Mrs. Parnice, remain solemn while the boy struggles to his feet. It shows good restraint and sportsmanship considering the bad blood. They are all respectfully quiet.
That is, except one woman who in the baritone of a wounded grizzly croons at the suffering fullback.
“Stay down, son! Stay down!” she yells.
We follow the noise to the railing. There, a heavy black woman in a red sweater is leaning over the steel piping, wagging a finger at the boy, arm flab swaying like a rippling suspension bridges.
“Stay down, son!” Mrs. Parnice sings. “Stay down!”
As the fullback is taken off the field, and the last seconds tick off the clock, the Cajuns of Babineaux stand for an ovation. I’m not sure if it’s for the well-being of that Limestone boy, for their own incredible team, or for Mrs. Parnice, but I join them. §
Ben Leroux continues to ply his trade as a window washer and writes from his home in Morro Bay. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Read more of his Washing windows across America series here:
Evicted From Wal-Mart (episode 9)Santa Fe Pride (episode 10)Leaving Las Vegas (episode 11)Tucumcari: End of the mother road (episode 12)Clovis ain't Texas (episode13)Welcome to Muleshoe (episode 14)Dry times in Lubbock (episode 15)Zen and the art of messing with Texas (episode 16)Directions from Texas (episode 17)A bug you can't see (episode 18)The bigger they are (episode19)Life in Lockhart (episode 20)Slow grinding war in Lockhart (episode 21)On the Riverwalk (episode 22)Peripherals (episode 23)God, giving and the Gulf (episode 24)Blue norther (episode 25)Noble Hacker (episode 26)
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Iris and Jim
‘The issue isn’t food,’ Dr. Chu droned on. ‘It’s about seeking perfection in an imperfect world.’
You are what you eat
By Sherry Shahan
When she was wheeled into the day room, attended by her IV drip, Jim thought she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. She seemed absolutely pure, evacuated of all evil, honed to perfection. Her head was an imported melon covered by the finest filo pastry, stretched and rolled thin. Her cheeks were eggshells. Concave. The hair on her head was shredded coconut.
The hair on her body was dark and fuzzy, like the mold on Gorgonzola. Her skin was the color of Dijon mustard—that wonderful brownish tinge that comes from lost vitamins and minerals.
She was everything gourmet Jim had denied himself.
According to the nurse, her name was Iris and this was her eighth admission in three years—her parents checked her in, she put on some weight, she went home, she lost it. This time, she’d done a two-month fast and then eaten a carton of laxatives. Jim was impressed, he felt encouraged; apparently, it was possible to go through the program and not be totally brainwashed.
When Iris looked at Jim, she wondered what he was doing on the ward. Not exactly no-boys-allowed, but he was the first male anorexic she’d ever seen.
When Jim looked at Iris, he couldn’t help but imagine what life would be like in their own tenth-floor apartment, no elevator. Living room with bar bells, rubber balls, wrist weights with velcro strips. Medicine cabinet with over-the-counter laxatives (chocolate squares, capsules, herbal mixtures). Diuretics in timed released tablets. Digital scales, fine-tuned to a quarter-ounce.
Disposable enema bags. No kitchen. Ultimate control over their bodies.
Iris smiled at him; her T-shirt said YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT.
“Everyone is on a diet,” she said softly, “and all they do is gain weight.”
“The nurses are jealous of my figure,” she continued. “Most people are. Even Dr. Chu. Why do you think he started this program?”
Jim couldn’t think of any other reason.
“They won’t be happy until everyone on this unit looks like the Pillsbury Dough Boy.”
After dinner, Jim opened and closed the metal chairs 350 times before stacking them against the wall. Then he focused on questions to ask his nutritionist: How much does the average toenail clipping weigh? How many calories do you burn clipping them? What happens to the saliva I swallow?
Therapy filled the following days:
Plus lectures. “The issue isn’t food,” Dr. Chu droned on. “It’s about seeking perfection in an imperfect world.”
Dr. Chu gave Jim permission to join a few patients on 20-minute walks around the hospital grounds. Monitored, of course, by the physical therapist who made sure no one jogged.
Jim stared at his lunch: a sandwich (with crust), an apple (with skin), and a lettuce salad with a little packet of oily dressing. He portioned his sandwich with a knife and fork, careful not to touch the bread in case calories could be absorbed through his skin—the reason he’d never used shaving cream or aftershave.
He tried not to look surprised when Iris asked the nurse for a bullion cube. “This potato doesn’t have any flavor,” she said. “May I have a cup of hot water, too, please?”
Bullion sloshed over the potato melting the excess butter. Iris ate the potato and left her floating butter. The nurse didn’t make her drink the bullion because it wasn’t on her menu.
At dinner, Iris used her finger to wipe a pat of butter on an asparagus spear, then suck an adjacent finger, pretending to remove the excess butter. The buttered finger scratched an ankle, and the calories were absorbed by a yellow sock.
Iris gave up her wheelchair on the eleventh day.
Iris and Jim shared secrets. Jim told her how he’d stayed up the night before the weekly weigh-in drinking gallons of water so the scales would show an increase in weight, which he’d pee away later. Iris told how she’d smuggled fishing weights onto the ward and sewed them into the hem of her hospital gown. “As long as the scales show a weight gain,” she said, “we have an argument against the doctor raising our calories.”
After lights out, sometimes at two, sometimes three or four, depending on the schedule of the night nurse, Jim sat on Iris’s hummingbird feet while she did sit-ups. She rode his bony spine while he sweated out push-ups.
“Was it good for you?” he’d ask afterwards, collapsing from exhaustion.
The next weigh-in showed that neither Jim had not put on the required weight. Dr. Chu summoned Jim into his office “to chew the fat.”
“We monitor your weight very carefully,” he said.
(It’s our job to make sure you gain as much weight as possible while you’re here.)
“Did you hear me, son?”
“We can’t let you go home until your weight stabilizes.”
(You’re a prisoner until you gain a thousand pounds.)
“Do you understand, son?”
“Since your chart indicates no weight gain, even after we’ve raised your calories another 200 per day, the staff can only conclude you’ve been exercising after hours.”
(We have closed circuit cameras and hidden microphones in your bedroom.)
“Are you listening to me, son?”
Jim found Iris in the day room playing solo scrabble. Four Ses spelled slim, slender, slight and svelte.
Iris smiled at him. “I got emaciated on a triple-word score!”
“They’re on to us,” Jim said, sitting beside her. “Guess all that water before weigh-in didn’t make up for exercising.”
“Salt pills. Then we’ll retain more water.”
“Tomorrow’s my mom’s birthday and I have a two-hour pass,” he said. “I’ll buy some.”
“Wrap them in a tissue,” Iris said, “and put it under your arm. Nurses never check armpits.”
Jim savored these conversations with Iris; he relished them.
Sandy and another bulimic strolled by sucking orange wedges.
“Quitters,” Jim murmured.
“No will-power,” Iris whispered back.
Before visiting his family, Jim stopped at a drug store and bought a packet of salt tablets.
A display of boxed chocolates by the register gave him an idea. He headed to the Home Remedy aisle and grabbed a carton of laxatives, then paid for a small paint brush and the latest copy of Weight Watchers.
He set the laxatives on his dashboard during his mom’s birthday party. They were a melted mess by the time he returned to the hospital. In the parking lot, he used the brush to paint the pages of the magazine with laxative. Then he checked in at the front desk. Pockets were turned inside out. Shoes shaken. Cuffs unrolled. Frisked, like a felon. Thankfully, the salt tablets didn’t drop. Sweat kept the tissue in place. No one questioned the magazine.
“Have you seen Iris?” he asked the nurse.
“Took her to ICU an hour ago.”
His heart slipped. “Is she OK?”
“Her resting pulse shot up to 250 beats per minute,” the nurse said. “That girl’s a cardiac arrest looking for a place to happen.”
Jim didn’t bother to ask if Iris could have visitors. He knew the answer. He also knew the hospital layout better than most of the staff, since he used to jog the halls late at night.
He found her in Room 602. She wasn’t under an oxygen tent. Good sign. She had an I.V. drip and a heart monitor. Her eyelids fluttered lightly.
“Iris?” he whispered, moving closer.
“Jim?” Her voice was thin as angle hair pasta.
He held a limp hand. “How’re you feeling?”
“How do I look?” she asked, eyes still closed.
“Like a delicately carved skeleton,” he said.
She smiled. “Come closer.”
Jim lowered the rail and slipped under the sheet. He was about to give her the magazine when the bouncing ball on the screen went flat and a siren sounded. Nurses stormed the room screaming medical stuff Jim didn’t understand, although “Get the hell out of that bed!” seemed clear enough.
A nurse slapped at Iris’s arm and jabbed it with a needle.
Jim watched from the foot of the bed and stuffed pages of Weight Watchers into his mouth. He’d choked down the table of contents. He’d finished off a laxative-lathered essay, “Hunger Pains.”
The bouncing ball reappeared on the monitor, slowly, at first, just a simmer, then full boil.
While Iris began to breath comfortably, he finished off “Feed My Lips” and “Food for Thought.”
His darling had pulled off another near-death experience; Jim had never hungered for her more. §
Sherry Shahan teaches a writing course through the UCLA extension program and holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story originally appeared in Zyzzyva and is reprinted with the author’s permission.
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Life in the cage: Cellmates from hell
Living with another man, a stranger and a convicted felon, inside a cage the size of a gas station bathroom is tryingAfter taking my morning dump outside at the yard toilets, since I prefer to not crap in front of my cellie, I saw Cleve standing by himself, near the bank of phones, sad, confused.
Cellmates from hell
Sometimes it’s best to keep your cellie
By Tito David Valdez Jr.
Living with another man, a stranger and a convicted felon, inside a cage the size of a gas station bathroom is trying. When things go wrong between cellmates, compromise is sometimes the only key to survival, but pride, selfishness, and greed fuel paranoia and distrust.
And cellmates who don’t trust each other, if they don’t come to blows, look for ways to part company.
“Hey Dave, let me tell you about my now cellie, Dre, he stinks, has horrible body odor,” said Cleve, a 50-year-old dark-skinned African American convict who always wears a Do-rag. “I burn incense and after the scent goes away, it reeks again,” he continued. “I’m trying to find a place to move but it’s too overcrowded, no cells open.” Cleve has spent the last 25 years in and out of the revolving door of the system, and is now a three-striker—for stealing a pair of socks from K-Mart. He sports a trimmed moustache and goatee, speaks slow like a drunk from years of drinking jailhouse pruno.
“Is there anything good about the guy that you can look past the odor?” I asked in an effort to give him a creative coping strategy.
“The guy is a piece of shit, in for robbing an elderly woman at gunpoint. I think he stealing from me. I feel like breaking his jaw but I don’t know for sure if he has been going into my coffee jar.”
“He did or he didn’t. Do you have a way of knowing if someone goes through your shit?”
Speaking passionately with his hands, putting on the concerned look of a crafty politician, he said: “Every time I leave the cell, I set up a trap on my locker door. I put a mustard pack wedged in the corner of the door and close it shut. If I come back and open the locker door and the mustard pack doesn’t fall, I know my cellie is looking through my shit.”
“Have you ever thought maybe the unit guard came in and did a cell search, and could have opened the door?” I said with sarcasm.
“Man, I’ve got other traps, not just one. I put a paper clip leaning sideways on my Folgers jar of coffee. Place a small piece of Scotch tape attaching the lid and jar, marking the level of coffee. Everything was moved and the level of coffee was lower than the marking, when I came back from the yard.”
“OK, let’s assume he did steal a few shots of coffee. Is it worth breaking his jaw and going to the hole and getting an assault charge?”
"It's the principle homie. He could be going through other
shit, hitting it to my old ladies photos in my album. He might be a rat, reading my trial court transcripts trying to make a deal with the D.A. I can't live like this, when there is no trust!"
"Do you ever share your food with him when you eat?"
"I did when I moved in but every time when he go to canteen, he waits until I leave the cell to go to yard to open his canteen items. I come back to the cell and food/candy wrappers, empty soda cans, empty chip bags, are in the trash bag. I like to be comfortable, eat something while I watch a game or movie. I can't even do that now because I feel guilty if I don't share. My momma always taught me to share. Fuck that motha fucka, he has nothing coming. He never eats when I'm in the cell and never offers me anything!"
"Hang in there man, a call will come open soon," I said, with a
hopeful tone of voice.
"I hope so. Shee-it, the only problem is the next guy might be worse, know what I'm saying homie?"
"Ya, I do."
It was a clear sunny morning when I finished jogging around the track. I ran into Antonio, a 35-year-old Mexican National, who is in great shape, has a youthful clean-shaven face, speaks English with a slight Latino accent. He wore brand now grey sweatpants and sweatshirt, with high dollar Nike tennis shoes. His sentence - 30 years with half time. Rumors say he got caught transporting
fifty kilos of cocaine across the border and has thousands of dollars in his prison account.
"Hermano, you got a second?" he asked.
"Yes, of course, what's up?" I said.
"Are you getting along with your cellie?" he asked, while using a palm comb to brush his short dark brown hair.
"I'm looking for a new cellie. My cellie Poncho, he snores all night. Reminds me of that place in Disneyland, where a bear snores really loud."
"Have you tried sleeping with your headphones on, listening to music? or try earplugs?"
"Ya, but it's not working. He is fat, and when he snores, it vibrates the entire bunk."
"Do you have a footlocker in your cell?"
"I've found that rattling the metal fasteners back and forth, which close the footlocker, wakes up a snoring callmate."
"You mean 'the clacking noise it makes?"
"Yes. Try it. It will wake him up and give you enough time to fall asleep before he starts snoring again."
"Alright, I'll try it. Gracias!"
While in the dayroom listening to my Walkman, giving my
cellmate an hour of cell time, I was approached by Tre, a 23 year
old lanky light skinned black guy who looked like rapper T.I. -bling bling with his thick gold chain and gold anchor emblem, sagging baggy pants, white tank top, old school Adidas tennis shoes, Do-rag, and black 'Murder One' shades. All he needed was a trendy sparkling grill on his teeth and he could be cast in a rap video.
"Yo Dave, my man, can I holler at you for a second?" he said, signaling me over to talk to him, against the wall of the mini-canteen so no one would hear our conversation.
"Yeah, what's up?"
Speaking with this hands, his body animated, "Homie, I gots to get a cell move. My cellie Melvin, he is a nutcase. I know you are tight with the building clerk. Can you hook up a call move for me? You knows I can't go to the po-leece and ask, my people will think I'm snitching."
"Wow, how bad is it in there?"
"Motha fucka sleeps with his state boots and state blues on. He showers once a week. Never goes to the yard. Always up in the cell late at night, typing writs for people. Any cat gots to be crazy to pay him to do their legal work!"
"Rumor says he is a good Iitigator. Has he ever won a case?" I asked.
"He think he a jailhouse lawyer. I ain't seen him win one case
since I've been up in there the last three months."
"Are we talking about the same Melvin, the guy who carries boxes of legal transcripts daily to the law library?"
"Yup. He say he do that to protect his clients from sneaky cellmates who want to read their court transcripts. He say they always looking for a way to snitch on a motha fucka, to get time knocked off their sentence, calling the D.A."
"Someone told me he puts all his personal property into a shower
bag and hangs it outside the cell on a hook, whenever he is out of the cell, is that true?"
"Yup. He say he don't want motha fuckas going through his lotion and shampoo, coffee. He even ties up his locker with a rope before he leaves the cell. It's like he don't trust a motha fucka. Look man, you know I get my hustle on, do a little this and that. I'll give you a jar of coffee, can you hook it up?"
"I'll see what I can do. Let me talk to the clerk."
Coming back from chow that evening, I was at the water fountain, reading the bulletin board, when I was approached by Dale, a 39 year old white dude from orange County, who had come to the joint
looking like a rich surfer or skater, lanky-feminine, with long blond hair. Re now is penniless, has the look of a convict, buff, bald heads goatee, sleeved arms with tattoos, a tear drop under his eye, looks like a hardcore criminal, straight from the trailer parks of Humboldt County.
"Hey dog, have you seen anyone selling a Sony Walkman?" he asked, with an angry tone.
"In fact, earier today, Hungarian Johnny, he was on the yard
trying to fetch twenty dollars for one. It had a weird Anarchy symbol on the back, etched with a tattoo gun." I replied.
"That's mine! My scandalous cellie Earl stole
"Why would he do that?"
"Why else. He wants to get high! I thought our unit officer
might have taken it, since he did a cell search today. The cop
told me he didn't take anything. I'm going to have to beat him
down now, no choice."
"Calm down! Are you sure he took it? what kind of guy is he?"
"I hate my cellie. He is a tight selfish bastard! Gets a care package every quarter from his family, a hundred on his account monthly for canteen. He goes through it all in a few days. Never shares. I know his connection loves him."
"Do you ever share with him?"
"I don't have anything to share. I barely make $12 a month on the yard crew, picking up trash. It's barely enough to buy cosmetic items like shampoo, toothpaste, soap."
"Forget beating him down if you go to the hole, you lose everything, all the little knick knack shit you have accumulated over the years."
"Hey dog, all that can be replaced. He is disrespecting me, thinking I'm a punk. I got no choice but to beat him down, it's about respect, principle."
"Have you done anything bad to him, where he is trying to get back at you?"
Inching closer to me, so no one else would hear, he whispered
with a grin, "Well, between you and I, I've taken his toothbrush and wiped it inside the toilet, leaving crud on it. I've pissed in his lotion bottle. I've…"
"Alright, I get it. I don't want to know more. Maybe he found out somehow. You need to talk to him, communicate-"
"I never talk to that idiot."
"He does his own program, I do mine. He tries to run the cell, telling me when I can watch television, when I can come in and out. I've already called him out, told him to fuck off. He won't fight me-"
"There is an empty cell right now, old man Hillbilly Bobs you could move in with him* better than throwing blows."
"Are you kidding? He smells like shit. Doesn't shower. I heard he gets up at night to piss a lot due to his swollen prostate.
Nobody can live with him, not even for a week."
"Look, talk to your cellie. Tell him what's bothering you. Try that first."
"Alright dog, I'll try it."
After taking my morning dump outside at the yard toilets, since I prefer to not crap in front of my cellie, I saw Cleve standing by himself, near the bank of phones, sad, confused.
"Cleves you alright? What's wrong?"
"That motha fucka cellie is stealing my hot sauce and lotion."
"How do you know that?"
"I mark my lotion bottle. The level of lotion was higher after I came back from the yard. Now it comes out watery, doesn't have that thickness to it. Same with my siracha sauce. He doesn't know who he is messing with."
"Don't trip. Just put in for a cell move, talk to your building clerk. Slap him a little payola if you have to."
"I already tried that. Clerk say nothin is open. I'm desperate.
Feel like throwing boiling water on his face, or putting a canned
good in a sock and just going off on his face."
"Don't do that! That's another charge!"
"I've already got life. They aint ever going to let me out anyways, the parole board going to deny me because of my long record.
"Start thinking outside the box. There is always a solution."
"Ya, maybe...I'm thinking of putting some bleach in his lotion and shampoo," he said, chuckling.
"Nah, don't do that, the moment he puts it on his face, he
will look like Michael Jackson."
Antonio was jogging around the track, I caught up to him, and ran beside him.
"How's that snoring problem?"
"It works! I made the clacking noise and he wakes Up. Takes him a while to go back to sleep. Poncho is a good cellie, the only thing is that he snores too loud!"
"Great to see that It worked out."
After speaking to my mom on the inmate telephones, during
afternoon yard, I was approached by Poncho, Antonio's cellie. An
overweight 45 year old hicano, with dark hair and moustaches who's in for robbing several convenience stores to support his addiction.
"Hey holmes, you got a minute?" he asked.
"Ya, what's up?"
"My cellie Antonio, he is a youngster. He watches television all night until 11:00 p.m. I got to be at work in the main kitchen at 3:30 a.m. Lately, I've been waking up a lot for some reason. I think my cellie is hitting it to the Spanish novella programs on Telemundo. Once I wake up, it's hard to go back to sleep. Can you talk to the gabacho clerk and tell him to find me an open call?"
"Ya, but who do you want to move in with?"
"Anyone holmes. If he is hitting it while I'm in the cell, it's a sign of disrespect. I need someone who goes to sleep around 8 p.m. an older vato perhaps, like me. Let me know how much it's going to cost."
"Alright, no problem, let me see what I can do."
The building clerk is like God in prison.
He has the ultimate juice card as a convict. He works directly with the cops. Pack in the '80s, give him two cartons of Camels, and he would schedule your conjugal visit every 30 days, while other chumps on the waiting list had to wait four months to get one.
"Mike, I got a few friends who are looking for cell moves.
Anything coming open this week?" I asked.
"I've got a list here of 200 inmates who also want a cell move.
Nothing new. Only opening right now is Hillbilly Bob's cell," said
Mike, a lanky tall light skinned Jewish inmate, a clever
opportunist, whose blond hair is combed to the side like a
poltician. He wears trendy sunglasses and looks like an
accountant. Rumors say he is in for running a Ponzi scheme.
"Nobody can live with him ! Any other cells?"
"Only one call this Saturday. Two black guys in cell 326, they are going to the dorms, custody level is being reduced. But here's the deal. That cell has a nice Penthouse view of the yard, gets great reception, has turn-on knobs in the sink, extra mirrors, new television stands, shelves. It's Cadillac. Snoop and Rudy in cell 311 want the cell, they offered me $100. Now, for something more than that, I might offer my assistance."
"I got it. Let me make the pitch. I'll get back at you."
After getting out of the shower, I walked to the water fountain
to get hot water and pour myself some hot chocolate. I was approached by Tre.
"Yo Dave! Have you talked to the clerk?"
"Ya, cell 326 is opening up on Saturday, but…"
"Tell me how much he wants!" he said anxiously.
"What?" he exclaimed. "Are you serious? That Jew bastard!"
"You know how it is in here, every man has his hustle."
"Fuck…Motha fucka Melvin is now bird bathing in *-he cell at 3:00 a.m. every morning after I told him he stinks. He paranoid to take a shower with other guys. I can't sleep. Would he take half now and half at Third Draw? I can get him anything he needs."
"I'll get back at you."
Before the cell lock up for the night, I ran into Poncho.
"Poncho, he wants $150. Are you able to afford that?"
"Yeah, but I need my money to buy hobby items to make my hustle.
Sabes que? I'll just put up with the youngster. Won't be the first cellmate who jerks off when I'm sleeping."
"Horale." I said. We both locked up for the night.
About 3 a.m., I was awakened by the sound of grunts, loud banging, and bones hitting concrete. The usual sign of a cell fight. Over the years, I've heard so many of them that it no longer interests me enough to listen. I went back to sleep. It's the same result, two inmates yanked out by guards, bloody, taken to the hole.
In the morning during chow, I heard the news, what happened.
"Hey holmes, did you hear about Dale?" said Sleepy, a chicano inmate who is tattooed down, has a bald head, and is intimidating looking.
"No, what happened?"
"Him and his cellie got into it last night, eh."
"Did they go to the hole?"
"Nah, they are still in the cell. Patching each other up. Black
eyes, Dale has a broken nose. The Unit officer at night must have been sleeping or out roaming around the prison to not have heard it. They got lucky to not get caught."
"How will they avoid being seen by the guards?"
"Ah, they will just act like they are reading the paper or taking a shit when the cop passes by."
"What was it over?"
"I heard that Dale's cellie took his radio and sold It. I heard also that Dale was pissing in his lotion bottle."
I immediately went to Dale's cell to see the situation. They were both wearing dark sunglasses to hide their black eyes, cleaning up the mess in the cell.
"Dale, is everything alright?"
Taking off his sunglasses, his black right eye was exposed, looking
like the dog on the Little Rascals television program.
"Ya Dog, sometimes it takes a brawl to make things right. we worked it all out last night. It's all good. Can you do me a favor?"
"Do you eat your fish tonight at chow?"
"No, I usually give it to Sleepy, who sits at my table."
"Dog, can you bring it back for me. We ain't going to chow for a week or so til the wounds heal."
"I understand. No problem. I'll be back later to drop it off."
Building clerk Mike was on his knees, with a scraper, stripping
the wax off the officers' bathroom floor in the unit. He was bumping the officers portable radio, playing ICE CUBE. The music blasted loud out the speakers, the dial read X-103.9 FM, a station which plays rap and rock music.
"Tre wants the cell, can he give you half now and half later,? What do you think?"
"I don't trust blacks. He has to give me everything up front. The only way I roll, know what I'm saying?" he said, with his baseball cap tipped sideways, reminding me of white rapper vanilla Ice.
"Alright, I'll relay the message."
That evening after chow, the alarm rang. Code One in the dining hall. Several guards ran to the scene, bringing out two
black inmates in handcuffs, placing them in holding cages. I looked to see who it was, it was Cleve and his cellie Dre. A medical nurse was treating wounds on Cleve's face. Upon returning to the cellblock, I asked a black inmate, Pookey, what happened.
"I heard that Cleve broke his cellie's jaw because he was stealing from his coffee jar. I also heard that Cleve was putting bleach in his cellie's lotion bottles."
I immediately walked towards Tre, who was returning from chow.
"Tre, he won't budge; $150 up front."
"Fuck it. Gots to do what I gots to do. Tell him I'll bring it out at dayroom. Two bags of groceries, the rest in books of stamps."
"No problem. Bring it by my cell. I'll take it to him. He
doesn't deal directly with blacks, he is paranoid the white guys
will trip on him." .
"No problem, hook it up. I'll put two jars of coffee in another
bag, just for you homie, for hooking it up!"
At dayroom, I met Mike at the officers bathroom where he was
finishing up putting a 20th layer of wax on the floor."
"Tre wants the cell. Here's what you asked for," I said,
placing the groceries on the ground.
"Thank you. Tell him I can move him tonight. The blacks in cell
326 will be moving out tonight, sooner than I expected, due to
"Thanks. Don't like to see people throw blows over nothing."
"We see this scenario every day, nothing is going to change."
Mike went upstairs to his Penthouse cell on the third tier with
the groceries, sitting it by his cell, counting it all, making sure he didn't get burned or cheated. He came back down the stairs, handing me two jars of coffee.
"OK, here's your usual cut."
"Ever hear of the inmate nicknamed Booty Bandit," he asked, while he sorted the new inmates mugshots behind cardboard bed cards.
"Yeah, the guy who rapes cellmates. Last I heard he got out of the
Corcoran SHU unit."
"Yeah, he got out all right. He is in the unit office right now,
being classified. I'm doing the paperwork. He will be Tre's new
cellmate, going into cell 326 with him tonight."
"Are you serious?"
"Dead serious." §
Read more of his "Life in the Cage" series here:
Mischief in the prison chapelJailhouse prunoA momentary breath of freedomBreakfast ClubTrappedInstitutialized Evening dayroom Destination ASHSleepless in SoledadJailhouse lawyersIn the hole (part 1)In the hole (part 2)The idiot boxShower timeSweet escapeSuicidal TendenciesParole granted
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Attica, plus 36
The situation at Attica Prison had been deteriorating all summer, with inmates angry over conditions they found infuriating.
With the gunfire came the sound of a helicopter, and a firm order spoken over a loudspeaker: ‘This is the state police! Put your hands in the air–you will not be harmed!’Photo from www.democratandchronicle.com
Attica, plus 36
A reporter’s retrospective on the 1971 prison riot
By John Winthrop
There was something strange and ominous about that day from the very beginning. It was Sept. 13, 1971, and my assignment that rainy Monday morning was the Attica Prison rebellion, which had started the Thursday before when rampaging inmates took 38 guards and civilian employees hostage in a spasm of violence that simmers to this day in that rural, western New York prison community.
I was a 30-year-old reporter at WOKR-TV Channel 13, an ABC affiliate in Rochester, New York. The situation at Attica Prison had been deteriorating all summer, with inmates angry over conditions they found infuriating: one roll of toilet paper per man per month; only one shower per week; no religious services for Black Muslims; an over-abundance of pork at both noon and evening meals; and assembly in the prison yard by more than three Muslims punishable by a stretch in solitary confinement.
These and other grievances had been presented to New York State Corrections Commissioner Russell G. Oswald on July 2 that summer, but nothing had been done about any of the complaints when frustrated inmates took matters into their own hands the morning of Sept. 9, breaking down a key internal gate, taking over two cellblocks and shops, and setting up camp in an outside area known as D-yard.
In the four days the inmates occupied and controlled these areas, three prisoners were murdered, correctional officer William Quinn died of injuries suffered in the first minutes of the uprising, and several guards were beaten, some seriously. But almost immediately, the guards were then isolated and protected by the rebelling inmates, and tense negotiations with prison officials began.
The inmates had 31 demands on their list, including amnesty. Twenty-eight of the demands were said to have been already agreed to by Oswald, but many of the prisoners feared he would break his word and not meet with them as promised. The previous November, at a correctional facility in Auburn, New York, a prisoner’s request for permission to hold a Black Solidarity Day observation had been denied. A sitdown strike ensued, several guards were captured, then released when officials promised no reprisals. But those promises were almost immediately abandoned, and retribution, including beatings, solitary confinement, and transfers to other prisons, were enacted. At Attica that fateful September, Oswald’s perceived betrayal weighed heavily on the rebelling inmates’ minds.
Coverage of the uprising had been front-page news for weeks, leading the news on every television and radio station in the state. My station was no exception, and that Monday morning I headed early to the prison with photographer Joe Paladino, apprehensive about the situation but looking forward to covering the story nonetheless. It was huge, and getting bigger by the hour. Journalists were showing up from Europe, and network requests for footage and stories were escalating. The Attica Prison rebellion had become international news.
We packed up carefully, taking plenty of extra film and equipment. It looked like a long day and we wanted to be ready for whatever happened. Joe drove the news wagon, and we took the Thruway to Batavia, then turned south on Route 98 towards Attica. It is a homely, rural route, with little of interest on either side of the road, just bleak farmland. Neither of us talked much, and it seemed like it was taking a very long time to get there. Suddenly the scanner erupted with the unmistakable sound of gunfire, a barrage of noise that could only come from many high-powered weapons. With the gunfire came the sound of a helicopter, and a firm order spoken over a loudspeaker: “This is the state police! Put your hands in the air–you will not be harmed! Repeat! Put your hands over your head–you will not be harmed! Put down your weapons; do exactly as you are told! You will not be harmed!”
“Jesus Christ,” I said to Joe. “Floor it! They’re firing on the inmates right now–we gotta get there fast or they’ll never let us on the property, and we’ll be shut out!”
Immediately we were rocketing down that rural roadway at 90 mph, and we made it through the outside perimeter gates of the prison just as they were swung closed. It was a wild scene on the grounds outside the prison walls, helicopters whirring overhead as the sound of gunfire continued, clouds of tear gas wafting over the walls, photographers and reporters scrambling, choking, gasping, trying to escape the gas yet get it all on film before it was over. Then came the interminable wait for official word of what had gone on inside. In my case, that came from Monroe County Undersheriff Andy Meloni, who emerged from the prison ashen-faced and somber. “There are many dead inmates,” he said to me in answer to my obvious first question. “Over twenty, at least.”
“Were any of the hostages killed?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “They had their throats cut by the inmates!” And that night, on Channel 13 and elsewhere, including the New York Times, that’s the way the story was reported.
But the very next day, Monroe County Medical Examiner and pathologist Dr. John Edland announced to a virtual horde of reporters that none of the hostages had died of a cut throat, that all had perished as a result of bullets fired by police and corrections officers. Reporters were incredulous. There was a rush to the phones like in the movies, and soon the world knew what had really happened the day before. In all, there were 39 killed in the Monday uprising, 29 inmates and 10 hostages. Over the four days of the uprising, the total was 43 dead. And Dr. Edland was soon the target of many attempts to discredit both his findings and his politics.
What followed was a huge investigation, then another, and a series of hearings, trials, lawsuits and rulings that went on for years. Finally, in 1976, then-governor Hugh Carey ended the legal morass by terminating the grand jury that had taken up the police and correction officer felony charges, and called a halt to all criminal prosecutions. On Aug. 28, 2000, 502 claims were approved by Federal Court Judge Michael Telesca in Rochester, and the monetary awards for inmates killed or injured in the rebellion ranged from $6,500 to $125,000, depending on the severity of the injuries and the amount of suffering endured. Injured and slain guards got nothing.
As for me, I never looked at a news story the same way ever again. I was more skeptical than ever of explanations made by so-called “authorities,” especially police officials. And prisons, never high on my list, have been forever relegated to the category of Places To Be Avoided At All Costs.
Thirty-six years later, that’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it. §
John Winthrop writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif.
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View from a staionary bike: The ideal woman
She’s gotta be tolerant of damaged idiots who can articulate past failures and future successes. She’s gotta have some goddamn hips and be able to move them when she walks.
Fortunately, I did well enough during the boom years to carry me over, so at least I don’t have to work out of a position of, well, you know, desperation, or panic.
Photo courtesy of Frank PetersThe ideal woman
By Talmadge Jarrattee
A gal around 40 trains next to me on the leg-lift machine. She is a study in concentration as she lifts hard to the max and then slowly lowers her legs to not quite bottom, then lifts again with a grunt. Her spandex workout pants hug her thighs and reach to her calves and match her black designer tank top. Her small breasts are firm and her belly has only a slight pooch from copious sit-ups. She is amply tanned. With dead serious mien, she goes from weight machine to weight machine with robotic precision, applying herself to each exercise with a perfectly calibrated effort. She carries a bottle of water and a large white fluffy personal towel, unlike the one I borrow from the gym—a striped, thin dishrag-type I use to mop my face and neck as I churn away and later drop in the laundry bag.
A guy, also around 40, tall, very trim and regal, in tank top and shorts, legs and arms sinewy, like a long distance jogger, hits the light weights. A perfect specimen, with a $40 haircut and chiseled features. He seems familiar with the gal beside me, like he’s talked to her once or twice in passing and now feels comfortable enough to walk up and continue a past conversation.
“I see you’re working hard,” he says, glowing, as if excited by life, and smiling as if smiling is his daily sustenance.
I shake my sports page. I am about halfway through my 40-minute exercise. I glance at the woman. She has a slight sheen of perspiration on her silkily-honed arms. She has short brush-cut hair, dyed blonde. She is handsome, not pretty, yet her voice is soft and feminine, almost inviting. “I always work hard. It’s the only way. If I don’t work hard, ugh, I get fat.” A helpless smile.
“Don’t I know it.” He shifts his weight, tilts toward her. “So remember the deal I was telling you about the other day? The sale…?”
“Oh, yes, yes, I do.” She ceases lifting out of politeness.
“Well, remember I told you how bummed I was that the sale was going to fall through, but that I was not going to give up on it?”
“Well, I went home and thought it over, and I called up the party and I went over there, and I told them, ‘I want to work with you.’ I knew they wanted the house. They were just dying for it, a beautiful house, a beautiful spread, and I wanted them to have it. You know, it’s not all about money. I changed a few things, lowered the price, and I brought over an excellent Pinot, and we talked, and I ordered to go, and I’m pretty sure we closed the deal. I think it’s going to work out.”
“How wonderful! I’m so happy for you. And believe me, I can imagine how hard it is to sell a house these days. The market is…”
“It’s down, yes, but I always look on the bright side. You can’t let it get you down. You can’t be gloomy. It’ll come back. And, fortunately, I did well enough during the boom years to carry me over, so at least I don’t have to work out of a position of, well, you know, desperation, or panic. I’m fine.”
She begins exercising again. “Well, I’m so glad things worked out for you, Ken, and I hope your deal goes through.”
He is smiling. He smiles the whole time, teeth perfectly polished and shiny. He walks around with perfect posture, tee-bouncy and purposeful, beaming, nodding, friendly, full of glad tidings and safe, mundane questions as to health and so on, issuing compliments, leaving no room for vicious lampooning. He shifts his weight, his eyes full of genuine interest.
“So, doing cardio today?”
“I alternate,” she explains. “I do cardio one day, and lifting the other day.”
“Seven days a week?”
“Seven days a week.” She smiles—another limp, involuntary smile, almost like a smirk.
“Well, it’s paying off. You look fantastic. Keep up the good work!”
“Oh, gosh, thank you. I work at it. Some days, I just do not feel like it, you know. But if I get the blahs, and don’t keep up, I might lose my groove. So I force myself, and I think it pays off.”
“I know what you mean. I like to get in my groove, you know, and stay in it. I like to get my workout in early, if I can, or at least catch it before noon, like now, because it clears my head and makes my job so much less stressful.”
“Yes. I know what you mean.”
He shifts his weight again. “Well, I’ve got to get back to my groove, ha ha, it’s been wonderful talking to you, Bev. You have a great day, and hopefully we’ll talk again.”
Ken walks off and goes to the weight room, using pulleys with light weights, breathing in, breathing out, perfectly calibrated. The guy’s a real pro, all the way around—workout, sales, women. I glance at Bev without moving my head, only my eyes. While not exactly pretty, she is quite attractive, but I don’t know that I would’ve pursued her twenty years ago, in my wilder bar days, when I was her age and my main goal in life was to get women drunk and lure them to my shack for crazed sport fucking. This woman is not a barfly. She has no ring, so perhaps she is a lonely, emotionally fragile, horny divorcee seeking companionship and a soul mate, along with warm, intimate, tender, passionate lovemaking.
I am sweating like a beast. I haven’t shaved in several days. I need a haircut. The toenails jutting out of my sandals are long, yellowed and crooked. My last woman left long ago. I have cats. I am supposed to tend bar tonight in one of the last dives remaining in now tony Santa Cruz, so none of the punkish professional students and ferret-faced moochers and bikers and surf Nazis and sea hags care how I look, nor what I say—usually derogatory and abrasive aspersions.
I’m wearing a ballcap that reads Bad-Ass Coffee. It’s sweat-stained. My shorts are from Goodwill, and my soaked, flimsy T-shirt reads Keep Santa Cruz Weird!
Bev finishes with her machine and goes to a little bucket of antiseptic paper towels to wipe her machine of her sweat and germs. She is a dutiful, fastidious woman, cleaning all 20 machines she uses, and she thoroughly swabs down the one she’s just used. Doesn’t miss an inch. I’m glancing at her. I want her to feel my glance. She feels it, peers at me, seems unsettled, forces a mirthless, faux, terrified smile, and scurries away to another machine, depositing her slimy antiseptic paper towel in a wastepaper basket on the way.
Isadore immediately materializes beside me. He practically lives in here. Burly, secretly rich, dressing poor like a rag picker, always on the prowl for fresh gossip.
He leans close to me, confidential. “That dish on the machine…you talk to her?”
“Nah. That pretty boy was captivating her.”
“He might be a fag, Tal. He walks like a girl.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You should pursue that gal. She’s sweet. Takes good care of herself. She’s friendly. Go for it.” He leans even closer, looking around, then says, almost under his breath: “She’s been divorced for about three months from a real asshole. Move in, man.”
“Christ, I’m twenty years older than her, Izz. And it’s too much work at this stage of my life, too complicated.”
He stands back, shrugs, disappointed. “Well, I just thought you might make a move on that gal. She’s a nice lady, and she’s looking for a guy.”
“How do you know?”
“I know.” He grins, punches me playfully on the shoulder. “If I didn’t have my honey, I’d go after that.” He leans close again, like a hawk. “I’ve talked to her. Want me to put in a good word for you?”
“Stop being a fucking Yenta. Besides, she’s too goddamn stringy for my taste.”
“Stringy? Come on. You don’t like a hard body?”
“Not that hard. Too hard to maneuver with muscular women. Too many physical detours. Overall, Izz, she’s not my type.”
He throws up his hands in exasperation, always the ham. “So what’s your type?”
I have to mull this over. “Well, some very small vestige of low self-esteem must enter the picture. And a foul temper, easy to ignite, so I can instigate fights. A good verbal scrap always leads to the best sex. She’s gotta be able to sit beside me in a bar—any kind of bar. She’s gotta be tolerant of damaged idiots who can articulate past failures and future successes. She’s gotta have some goddamn hips and be able to move them when she walks. In short, I want a human being with a whore’s mentality, and just enough of the she-devil to make it interesting, but not enough to swallow me whole and turn me into a basket case.”
Isadore laughs and whacks my shoulder. “You’re too picky, Tal.” He winks. “You’re looking for the ideal woman.” He walks away. I sit there. I glance over into the weight area with the pullies and barbells. Ken is talking to Bev again. Izzy lurks near them, shaking his head at me very slowly, face etched with disappointment. §
Talmadge Jarratte manages a homeless shelter in Santa Cruz and moonlights as a bartender.
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Until the shooting stops
The bag at my feet is filled with military manuals, but I prefer the poems, thinking they may be my last chance to reflect for a while.
War’s intensity is a great catalyst for reflection, but few combatants can afford the luxury. Most real thought must wait until the shooting stops.An ex-soldier’s take on recent war poetry.
Sinan Antoon. The Baghdad Blues. Harbor Mountain Press, 42 pp., $10.
Randall Jarrell. Selected Poems. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 115 pp., $16.
Kent Johnson. Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz. Effing Press, 44 pp., $7.
Dunya Mikhail. The War Works Hard, trans. by Elizabeth Winslow, New Directions Publishing, 79 pp., $13.95.
Brian Turner. Here, Bullet, Alice James Books, 71 pp., $14.95.
By Nathaniel Fick
I first flew into Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001, near midnight, with a rifle by my side and no passport in my pocket. At 24 years old, I commanded a Marine Corps infantry platoon, spearheading the attack against the Taliban after September 11. My men and I had all joined a peacetime military, and that night we were self-consciously aware of heading into combat for the first time.
Nearly six years later, on a sunny afternoon, I’m again soaring over the Hindu Kush range. This time, I’m on an Indian Airbus, sipping sparkling water and reading war poems. After two combat tours (we did another in Iraq in 2003), I left the military to study for a master’s degree in public policy and an M.B.A. Now I live with my fiancé in Boston. We host dinner parties, grow herbs on the windowsill, and go walking in the park on Sundays. It’s four years and 10 lifetimes since my last ambush patrol, and I’ve been invited back to the fray to teach at the Afghanistan Counterinsurgency Academy, a school set up to train Afghan and NATO troops on the finer points of fighting insurgents. For some reason, I’ve agreed to come.
The bag at my feet is filled with military manuals, but I prefer the poems, thinking they may be my last chance to reflect for a while. War’s intensity is a great catalyst for reflection, but few combatants can afford the luxury. Most real thought must wait until the shooting stops. I wish I could say I took strength in combat from poetry or prayer or love, but I didn’t. I was concerned with more prosaic things: studying maps, planning missions, and cleaning weapons. When I had a few minutes free, I slept.
I do, though, remember two encounters with poetry during my first trip to Afghanistan. Late one evening, while camped in the desert near Kandahar, one of my Marines called me over to listen as he read aloud from a book of Kipling’s verse:
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
He laughed, and so did I, mainly because it didn’t seem very funny at the time. The second poem, Alastair Reid’s translation of “The Just,” by Jorge Luis Borges, was mailed to me by a friend. I tacked it to the wall in our temporary command post, between a map of southern Afghanistan and a roster of my platoon, because it was that most precious of possessions in a combat zone: a reminder of normal life at home:
A man who cultivates his garden, as Voltaire wished.
He who is grateful for the existence of music.
He who takes pleasure in tracing an etymology.
Two workmen playing, in a café in the South, a silent game of chess.
The potter, contemplating a color and a form.
The typographer who sets this page well, though it may not please him.
A woman and a man, who read the last tercets of a certain canto.
He who strokes a sleeping animal.
He who justifies, or wishes to, a wrong done him.
He who is grateful for the existence of Stevenson. He who prefers others to be right.
These people, unaware, are saving the world.
Like Kipling and Borges, Randall Jarrell is a poet known even to the Tom Clancy crowd, so I let down my tray table and open his Selected Poems first. I dimly associate his name with the image of a dead bomber crewman washed from his turret with a hose. Despite this subliminal familiarity with Jarrell’s work, I find that my current circumstances lend new meaning to “Eighth Air Force”:
If, in an odd angle of the hutment,
A puppy laps the water from a can
Of flowers, and the drunk sergeant shaving
Whistles O Paradiso!—shall I say that man
Is not as men have said: a wolf to man?
The other murderers troop in yawning;
Three of them play Pitch, one sleeps, and one
Lies counting missions, lies there sweating
Till even his heart beats: One; One; One.
O murderers! . . . Still, this is how it’s done:
This is a war. . . . But since these play, before they die,
Like puppies with their puppy; since, a man,
I did as these have done, but did not die—
I will content the people as I can
And give up these to them: Behold the man!
I have suffered, in a dream, because of him,
Many things; for this last saviour, man,
I have lied as I lie now.
But what is lying?
Men wash their hands, in blood, as best they can:
I find no fault in this just man.
This is how it’s done: This is a war … Along with the manuals, my bag holds ballistic goggles and a holster to carry a concealed pistol. Six weeks ago, it held accounting textbooks. One of war’s more jarring traits is that it sweeps normal people into its maelstrom and carries them along to places they never imagined they’d be. I clearly remember munching a granola bar one morning in Iraq when my Marines saw a man sneaking toward us with an AK-47. After giving the order to shoot him, I went back to my breakfast.
Kent Johnson, in his collection Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, takes these contrasts even further. In his title poem, even the most sadistic abusers do indeed troop in yawning. Five corn-fed American guards at Abu Ghraib greet their Iraqi prisoners: “What’s up, Ramal, I’m an American boy, a father, two children, graduate of Whitman High,” or “Hi there, Hajaz, I’m an American girl, former Vice-President of the Heartland High Young Democrats and Captain of our Regional Championship pom-pom squad.” After the innocent introductions, each fictional soldier cuts to the chase: “But I’m going to fuck you in the ass now with a fluorescent light tube, you sorry-assed, primitive thug,” and “Look at the camera when I talk to you, asshole, or I’ll go get the dog.”
The proclivity for wanton destruction is hardly a phenomenon of modern warfare. Johnson’s opening poem, “Mission,” describes a force of Greeks setting sail from Pylos for Asia, stopping along the way to write poems and rest near a waterfall.
We spoke in low voices of the beauty around us, of the dark, darting trout, and of the strange, haunting songs in the towering trees. We spoke of time, and friendship, and truth. Then each of us drank deeply from the pool.
Aided by the gods, we stormed Smyrna, and burned its profane temples to the ground.
How many American platoons have relaxed in the shade, playing cards, then said a prayer together, gone out on patrol, and killed a dozen people in an ambush? It’s not good or bad. In war, it just is, and always has been.
Don’t believe, however, that combat isn’t deeply felt by warriors. Consider U.S. Army Sergeant Brian Turner. He distilled his year in Iraq into a haunting book of poems titled Here, Bullet. Turner initially kept his work to himself because he didn’t want his men to think he was writing about “flowers and stuff.” One of my favorites is titled “Ashbah,” Arabic for “ghosts.”
The ghosts of American soldiers
wander the streets of Balad by night,
unsure of their way home, exhausted,
the desert wind blowing trash
down the narrow alleys as a voice
sounds from the minaret, a soulful call
reminding them how alone they are,
how lost. And the Iraqi dead,
they watch in silence from rooftops
as date palms line the shore in silhouette,
leaning toward Mecca when the dawn wind blows.
Having walked Iraq’s streets by night and felt that dawn wind bending the palms, I get lost when I read Turner’s verse. His words are worth a thousand pictures, and they take me right back. My memories are mostly sentence fragments now, rather than chapters, or even paragraphs. A boy with a bellyful of bullets. Birdsong in the palms. The taste of fear, like a penny on your tongue. Flames in the night sky. More than mere scene-setting, Turner captures the feel of the place, the sheer forlorn emptiness of it.
Jim Webb (now the junior senator from Virginia) begins his classic Vietnam novel Fields of Fire with a lament from an anonymous general to newspaper correspondent Arthur Hadley: “And who are the young men we are asking to go into action against such solid odds? You’ve met them. You know. They are the best we have. But they are not McNamara’s sons, or Bundy’s. I doubt they’re yours. And they know that they’re at the end of the pipeline. That no one cares. They know.”
Soldiers and Marines today know it as well. Yellow ribbons and flag-waving aren’t much. Even aboard a commercial flight on a bright day, I know it too. If, in two hours, a bomb goes off on the airport road, or if, tonight, a lucky mortar round falls into the camp, no one will cry except my family. Despite the very real comradeship and teamwork, soldiering is, in the end, the loneliest of professions. Maybe this explains the solemn solidarity that exists between warriors and civilians who’ve lived through war. They have more in common with each other than with their counterparts who’ve only known peace.
Sinan Antoon studied at Baghdad University before moving to the United States after the 1991 Gulf War. We stood on opposite sides of a chasm: I was a combatant, and he was a civilian. But Antoon understands war’s egalitarian nature: that it often doesn’t matter which end of the gun we’re on.
In “A Prisoner’s Song,” Antoon writes of a POW returning from captivity after the Iran-Iraq war:
from the distant fog
after communiqués had withered
and cannons stopped spitting
soaked with the “there”
his silence an umbrella
under our ululation
he passed by us
to his old room
No family member of a returning combat veteran can read those lines and not recognize, viscerally, the silence of the “there.” Antoon touches another universal theme in “Sifting,” a poem of but 12 words:
are two sieves
in piles of others
A husband scanning a crowd of refugees for his wife? Maybe a sister seeking her brother in a line of captured soldiers? Or how about a young Marine at a checkpoint? He’s desperately searching for the tell-tale bulge of a suicide vest, a nearly hopeless task since he’s looking not for a known face among strangers, but for a phantom among shades.
Like Antoon, Dunya Mikhail fled Iraq in the 1990s. The title poem in her collection, The War Works Hard (winner of a 2004 PEN Translation Fund Award), turns President Bush’s oft-repeated phrase on its head.
How magnificent the war is!
. . .
The war continues working, day and night.
It inspires tyrants
to deliver long speeches,
awards medals to generals
and themes to poets.
It contributes to the industry
of artificial limbs,
provides food for flies,
adds pages to the history books,
between killer and killed,
teaches lovers to write letters,
accustoms young women to waiting,
fills the newspapers
with articles and pictures,
builds new houses
for the orphans,
invigorates the coffin makers,
gives grave diggers
a pat on the back
and paints a smile on the leader’s face.
The war works with unparalleled diligence!
Yet no one gives it
a word of praise.
As the plane drops toward the runway, into surface-to-air missile range, I realize the poems have indeed prompted reflection. My heart’s beating faster, and I’m thinking of Turner’s wind, Antoon’s sifting eyes, and Mikhail’s working war. They remind me where I’ve been, and make me wonder why the hell I’ve come back. §
After studying Classics at Dartmouth, Nathaniel Fick served as a Marine Corps infantry officer in Afghanistan and Iraq. His combat memoir, One Bullet Away, was a New York Times bestseller, and was named one of the Best Books of 2005 by The Washington Post.
This article was originally written for the Poetry Foundation. It is reprinted with the author’s permission.
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