Naked, shoulder-to-shoulder, and five at a time we stood in the bathroom, awaiting orders.
“Lift your top lip, bottom lip, tongue up, bend forward at the waist, run your fingers through your hair, stand up, lift your penis and penis only, penis and nutsack, turn around, bend over and spread ’em, cough twice, right foot, left foot, next five!”
We were then herded into the dayroom like cattle, 75 of us in all. I found a spot on the floor to wait out the storm. As soon as I sat down, the old man to my immediate left removed his dentures and began to blow the trapped food from between his false teeth.
“Honey, you is disgusting,” said the sissy to my right, while covering his “breasts.”
I had to smile. In spite of the nauseating heat, the persistent flies, the cacophony of smells and my aforementioned neighbors, a sort of calm gratitude washed over me. But the soothing voice in my head was more Dostoyevsky than Gandhi, more David Mitchell than Lao Tsu, more Donna Tartt than Siddhartha. The voice said, “Dude, this is definitely going in the next book.”
Prison is my internet. Here there are carnies, junkies, boosters, charlatans, doctors, athletes, psychics, preachers, bullies, dope cooks, gigolos, sociopaths, card sharps, gangsters, killers, coyotes, refugees… Any lifestyle I want to research is somewhere on the yard. Guaranteed. The same goes for experience: strip searches, beatings, gassings, riots, solitary confinement, naked fear, transcendent love, seething racism, unexpected kindness, stabbings, overdoses, undiagnosed mental illness, it’s all here. Every day. These are the stories I tell.
As the shakedown commenced in the living area, as bunks were tossed and lockers dumped, the momentary gratitude was swallowed by a familiar paranoia. I know that most of the men crammed in the dayroom with me were worried about their knives, naked flicks, dope, buck (homemade wine), altered radios, contraband bowls and gambling paraphernalia. My mind was somewhere else. I was sweating my manuscript.
Like Ezra James, the protagonist in my latest novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, I’ve lost my share of pages in shakedowns. Precious sentences and paragraphs gone forever, drenched in tobacco spit, ripped to pieces, swept from the dorm in a pile of soiled linen and rotten fruit. Crushing.
I wonder if other incarcerated writers went through this. Did Cervantes have to stash his draft of Don Quixote when the guards made their rounds? Surely Dostoyevsky had some close calls during his years in Siberia. Oscar Wilde, Henry David Thoreau, E. E. Cummings. Not to throw my hat in the ring with these masters of the craft, but I can at least say I write in their tradition. If confinement can be considered a tradition. (Condition?)
As for the manuscript, when I returned to my bunk, post-shakedown, I was relieved to find it under my mat. A little bent up and crumpled but still in tact. It’s called Sticks and Stones, available this fall on Amazon.
“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky