“Bowels of the devil / let me tell you what the muthafucka eats” –Body Count
By February I’d made it into Lovelock, and just as I’d hoped, the screws placed me in the PC Unit. That stands for protective custody, but what it really means is Punk City. It’s where they put all the chomos and snitches—inmates the state has to segregate from the convicts who want them tits up and leaking out in the yard. Not that the state cares what happens to them, but the prisons have to project a façade of humanity and justice. PC cases make me fucking sick.
Now you might say to me, “Joey Cant, you’re a snitch, so you should fit right in.” Yeah, I’m a snitch. But on my skin, I didn’t rat anybody out to save myself. I’m no punk, and I can hold my mud. What I did, I did from a righteous place. I had a reason. I’m not happy about being a snitch. I swore I’d never rat on anybody. Seems like people often become what they hate. But I made up for it, believe that.
I had things rough growing up, so I jumped out at thirteen in order to get away from that apartment full of hell. My father was totally sober—no drugs, not even a glass of wine. He had other addictions. I took the opposite path. I stole my first twelve-pack from the grocery store at eight years old. I held it together long enough to walk in and walk out. No one noticed, and if they did, they didn’t care. I drank one after another in an alley behind the store while sobbing uncontrollably until I blacked out. I learned if I stayed drunk, I wouldn’t have to face what was going on. Drugs worked way better than booze. Pot was ok, and I gaffled anything with a prescription label I could find. Two days after my twelfth birthday some older cats at a party lined me out with some meth. That was the same night I met P—–. We became road dogs real quick. We did what we thought at the time was a lot of dope. P—– even learned how to cook from one of his uncles. When I left home, I had a good enough connect to sling dope, so that’s what I did. That crystal is a motherfucker though man; that’s no lie. I went from doing key bumps and tiny lines to keep up with the cluckers I was selling to, to melting puddles and snorting hot rails. I never shot it though; I promised myself I’d never mainline. I held my own for about three years, using, but not heavily.
After my homeboy learned to cook, we started smoking day and night. P—– helped his uncle out with his operation and we had plenty to sell and to smoke. I always had dope, so I always had pussy too. Shit man, I was living the American dream right? I had money and bitches. I worked my own hours. I didn’t own a big house with a white picket fence, but I could fly higher than any private jet. The dope game is capitalism in its purest form. But my American dream became my American nightmare.
There’s not a feeling in the world like that first rush after blowing out a huge rolling fog from a hit of crystal meth. It’s like a free-form orgasm and full body massage all rolled into one. Watching those shards melt as you twist the glass—and watching them crack back as they cool—is beautiful. It feels like being possessed by a demon of ecstasy. That feeling doesn’t last though. Before long, I was smoking just to keep from coming down. I’d sleep an hour, maybe two here and there. I wouldn’t even call it sleep, more like momentary oblivion while my body shutdown. When I finally crashed, I slept for close to a week. I was headed for prison by then.
I started geeking real hard. I saw trolls and gnomes popping out of bushes on a daily basis. LSD hallucinations got nothing on what you see, hear, and believe when you’re sleep deprived and twacked out. Day and night, whole communities of shadow people lived in my peripherals. I heard their whispering conversations, but they were elusive as mirages—always darting away when I turned to look at them. I heard voices in my heater vents. I spent hours peering out of a carefully lifted window blind into the parking lot below my apartment. If I turned the lights off, my whole living room would fill up with phantasms—dead friends and family members, old girlfriends, teachers from elementary school. I saw skulls leering at me with their empty sockets from underneath the cracks of a closed door. Someone traded me a pistol, a 9mm Beretta, for an eight ball. I kept it loaded and packed it in a stolen holster everywhere I went. I even shot it once after walking home from P—–‘s because I thought someone was following me.
I started staying home more—locked up in my pad, selling less—spending my time melting shimmering shards into bubbling pools and blowing clouds of pure white smoke. I turned the piece with precision, never burning the dope. I was obsessed with the ritual of glass, crystal, smoke, and flame. As I’ve said, it was beautiful. But my paranoia became an entity onto itself. It was my invisible boogey man, lurking in every shadow, every pipe. Often I crouched in darkness in my living room, hiding behind my couch, gun in my hand, listening to the clock tick, tick, tick, tick, tick until my muscles seized with the tension. I kept right on smoking though.
P—– met a broad named Leann, his own little Spinderella, who convinced him to give her the ice he was fronting me. I can’t blame him really. He wasn’t really fronting it anymore, since I wasn’t moving it. I’d become a meth charity case. He kept me in supply because we were both junkies and he thought he was doing me a favor. But even he didn’t have enough to support two big habits besides his own. At least she was giving up the pussy to stay high. I wasn’t even talking to him that much anymore. P—– cutting me off probably saved my life. I still had contacts, and I still stayed high, but not like I did when P—– was cooking.
It didn’t take long to smoke up what little I owned. After my eviction, I couch-surfed until I ran out of suckers to use. Then I took to sleeping by the river. During the summer, I didn’t really mind. I felt like I was camping. I spent most of my time watching girls in bikinis and panhandling. Somehow, I’d managed to hold on to my nine and two magazines. I jacked a few tourists and boosted electronics and tools when I could—this kept me in enough go-fast to stave off facing the things inside me that emerged in silence and sobriety. Even got me laid despite my filthy clothes and pungent odor. Summer went away and my life turned to shit. The cold weather made being homeless far worse. I developed a hacking cough like some kind of goblin. I had almost nothing left and nowhere to go.
On Christmas Eve I had a teener in my pocket and the muzzle of the nine in my mouth as I sat shivering violently under a bridge downtown. I don’t believe there’s a god in charge of this fucked-up mess of a world—and if there is, he’s a sick son of a bitch—but I had a revelation the moment before I pulled the trigger, like a celestial pimp-slap. I took the piece out of my mouth. For the first time in my life, I had a purpose. And I mean something other than trying to cop a sack. I had a reason to live—one worth dying for too. My path was clear. My tribulations faded into nothing. I existed to serve one righteous function now. I only felt freedom like that again one more time in my life.
I crawled out from under that bridge and trolled for rollers until I found a black and white parked at a Taco Bell. The pigs were inside eating, nice and warm, laughing—probably about some homeless woman they just threw in the frigid river. I stepped close enough that my breath left fleeting ghosts on the window. I reached underneath my stained hoodie and withdrew the piece tucked into my waistline. They saw me then. One made a shooing gesture and then patted his pepper spray without putting down his Chalupa. He didn’t see what I had in my hand. I stepped back, sat down on the hood of their car, and loaded the piece. That got their fat asses up. I flicked my lighter and brought the glass stem to my lips, twisting it from two-to-ten. As I blew out my hit, they blasted me with pepper spray. I exhaled one poison only to inhale another, nothing new to me. I busted the bigger one in the jaw. I told you I wasn’t a punk. My swing had no juice because of the pepper spray overwhelming my system, but I think I made my point. The pigs wanted to make a point too, so they went to work on me with their nightsticks. In the end though, I got what I’d set out for: a possession charge for the one-sixteenth of an ounce of methamphetamine I had left. The assault on an officer, the Berretta, and my priors ensured me a prison bit. How long didn’t matter to me. I was already locked-up inside my head. That’s why I put a gun in my mouth and almost pulled the trigger in the first place—I wanted to escape.
As soon as I’d healed up enough to speak, I started putting on the big show. I acted like the law expected a junkie should—out for myself and dumb as dirt. My priors pointed to trafficking, but they had never nailed me with anything big before this. Now they put the pressure on me to give up names, assuring me safety and a reduced sentence. Whatever. I rolled over on some Mexican cats I had scant dealings with in the past, some carnales connected to La Eme—effectively sentencing myself to death—but more importantly, ensuring that I landed in PC. I insisted they send me up to Lovelock as part of my deal, gave them some bullshit about feeling at home there. I hate Lovelock. I always have.
Turning snitch didn’t sit well with me. I pulled it off, but later, back in my cell, I wondered if it was all worth it. I suddenly wanted that pistol back so I could make everything right. But I kept my purpose in mind. I re-created the feeling of my epiphany under the bridge as best I could. Remembering helped—it got me through.
They processed me, sent me up to Lovelock Correctional Center, and placed me in segregation. I spent the time outside my cell keeping to myself as much as possible. I didn’t pry into anyone’s shit, and I didn’t let anyone pry into mine. It took me some time to adjust, to learn the ropes. Once I did, I took up watching chess games on my tier. I had played chess with my dad growing up, and he never once let me win. Only way I’d get better, he’d say. I had never played anyone but him, so I gave it try. I picked the game up quickly. I guess my pops taught me something after all. He taught me everything I know, really. I smoked one diddler and rat after another. After a few months, I’d beaten every player on my tier except one. Lloyd. No one knew his last name. People started bumpin’ their gums about how he was better than me, and how I wouldn’t play him because I was afraid to lose my rep as the best player. I kept saying I’d play him. I’d say what’s the rush? We got all the time in the world. That usually shut ‘em down. No one liked to head trip too hard on that reality.
I knew one of the bulls, a dude named Jake who used to buy from me, so I’d chat it up with him whenever possible. I knew the effect these conversations would have, so I threw down on the first bitch I heard mumbling about me being a leg-rider. The fight got me pencil whipped and I racked up some more charges, but the talk stopped; I’d nutted up on him and stomped him when he was down. What did it matter what charges administration saw fit to add? I had no illusions about ever being gated out. I watched my back and kept on keeping on. I was clean now, had been since my stint in the ICU, courtesy of the Taco Bell pigs. Though I had access to dope in small amounts, I steered clear. My head felt cold and sharp. I spent too much time focused on getting by to be haunted by my past. Even when things were slow, my purpose kept my fear down. I when I abandoned my old life, I abandoned my ghosts too. Well, almost. I hit the iron pile daily. I was eating healthier than I ever had, I was working out, and I was sober. I was the fittest I’d ever been. Prison life honed my body, and my purpose honed my spirit. Like the Peter Tosh song, I was a walking razor. I kept up my conversations with Jake, and we helped each other out a few times, on the down so as not cause unnecessary trouble. There are no secrets in prison, but I only needed a little more time.
In spring, the screws held a chess tourney. I still hadn’t played the champ, Lloyd, though I made it known I intended to win the tourney. Lloyd was a quiet man. He had been some kind of accountant or data entry cat on the outside. Though I did my best to avoid him, I did catch a glimpse of him a few times at chow. He kept his eyes to his plate and his jaw trembled when he ate. I’d heard he taught illiterate prisoners how to read, often successfully. He had some kind of white-collar jacket, but nobody knew the length of his bit. The stories conflicted—some said a dime, others said he’d be gated out in a year. I even heard someone say he was a lifer. A white-collar lifer? That shit didn’t add up. I knew that already.
The day of the tourney came. Everybody talked it up, screws included. Everyone wanted to forget about where they were. Diversion. Diversion is what keeps you sane inside. Books, games, drugs, television. Not too different for most people on the outside really. The chess tourney was an escape from the nightmare routine of prison and, as such, generated a great deal of excitement. Lloyd and I began in different divisions, which I am sure was fixed to heighten the excitement. I defeated one player after another, never losing a match. Lloyd did the same. He kept glancing at me, never holding my gaze. I had bulked up considerably and not too many cats held my gaze anyway, especially in this unit. He looked at me the way someone does when they think they see an old friend in the supermarket, but they don’t want to walk up and start blabbing to a possible stranger. The timed matches lasted throughout the day until both Lloyd and I eliminated everyone in our divisions. Ours was the last game, as predicted. Finally I had my shot at Lloyd.
After a thirty minute break, the guards had set up a card table, draped with a sheet and arranged the pieces on a beat-up board. Jack stood by, waiting. He held a black piece in one hand and a white piece in the other. Due to his seniority, Lloyd would pick a hand thus determining the sides. We approached the table and Lloyd eyeballed me. He was clearly troubled by my presence, but I don’t think he knew why. I must’ve seemed familiar to him in some vague, forgotten way. When we reached the chairs I looked at Jake. A ghost of a cruel smile fleeted across his face and he dropped the pieces.
“Shit,” he said and bent over to pick them up.
“Hi Dad,” I said as if I were a middle-class kid just walking in the door of our suburban house after baseball practice. “Looks like it’s your turn to get fucked.”
He recognized me then, I could read that much in his face. I side-stepped the table before he could speak. Jake was still fumbling around with the chess pieces—he knew the real reason Lloyd was doing life in this shit-hole. Lloyd was slow, and didn’t even raise his hands as my initial thrust pierced the side of his neck. I withdrew the shank just as quickly as I’d inserted it, and he buckled as a gout of hot blood splashed over my arm. He released a gurgling, inhuman shriek—befitting the monster he was. A great cacophony of shouts and voices and clambering bodies descended around me, but I ignored it all, enraptured with executing justice. My mind emptied of all thought. I experienced freedom in pure awareness. I knew only the sensations of that fleeting moment—my arm pumping like a deadly piston, the sucking sound of contraband steel pulled repeatedly from his flesh, the stink of his innards and released bowels, his face contorted with agony, his eyes ablaze with terror. I wondered how many times he’d seen that same look in my eyes.
His screams ended as abruptly as they had begun, and I dropped the shank, panting heavily. The cacophony rolled over me like a tsunami. The floor reeked of blood and meat. The moment passed and my purpose died with my father.
I returned to my prison, and longed to be back under the bridge.