This time last year a little old man moved into the bunk at the end of my row. Amphetamine thin with no teeth and two faded teardrops tatted under his right eye, barely visible in the wrinkled roadmap of his face. It was obvious from day one that he was a character.
“Where you from, pops?”
“Oh yeah, I know a few people from down there. Where at in Pasco County?”
“Pickatree Lane… I just pick me a tree and go to sleep under it.”
Donny has been homeless for most of his adult life. This is his seventh time in prison. He’s been in and out for the last fifty years, doing life on the installment plan. Because he fits the profile, many of my fellow inmates assume he’s a pedophile. He’s not. He’s one of us. He just got old.
Although he’s not really all that old. Seventy. There are men his age doing pull ups on the yard. But Donny’s seventy is a hard seventy. His pull-up days are long gone. He can barely get off his bunk without help, he pees on himself in his sleep, his hands shake, he’s damn near blind, and his brain is clouded with dementia. But you wouldn’t know that from all the smack he talks.
“Hey George. Does your mother know you’re a damned queer?”
“My mother died last year.”
“Yeah, mine too. Get over it.”
There is not a politically correct bone in the old man’s body. He drops n-bombs without a second thought, mocks my Latino friends by talking gibberish, and openly ogles every female guard on the compound. Some would say Donny’s filter is broken, but I’m not convinced he ever had one. He’s just a relic from the rural south who’s spent most of his life in a cage. Or sleeping on sidewalks.
I had just received a job change from impaired assistant to administrative clerk when he moved into my dorm. I was writing a novel, the first in a series, about a young woman who takes the fall for her dope dealer boyfriend, finds herself in prison, learns her way around the law library, and discovers that she’s a natural in the process. But I knew I couldn’t write convincingly about something as complex as the law without learning it myself. So I got a job in the prison library for research purposes.
I kept seeing Donny shuffle by the window every morning for legal mail. He wasn’t difficult to spot. He’s got one of those Rollator things; sorta like a walker with wheels. One day he banged on the library door demanding assistance. I explained to my free-world boss that he lived in my dorm, had a touch of dementia and was in really poor health.
He entered the library shivering. “Damn it’s cold out there!” (It was maybe 75 degrees. Early October Florida Panhandle weather.) He looked at me. “I need your help, young feller.” He pronounced help like “hep.” When I asked what I could do for him, he slapped a letter on the counter. It was from an attorney representing GEICO.
Between the letter and a maddening hour of circular and sometimes nonsensical discussion with him, the details emerged. He was hit and dragged by a car before he came to prison and the insurance company was offering $50,000 dollars. Problem was, the hospital had placed a lien on him for the weeks he spent recovering. After checking with a couple of the inmate law clerks, it became clear that his chances of ever seeing the money were slim. Even if the hospital mercifully forgave the lien, the Florida Department of Corrections would come after him for all the free room and board. Either way, the consensus was that he would never get a dime. An exclamation point to a lifetime of bad luck.
I wrote the hospital for him anyway. Just to do something. They never responded. I’m not even sure if the letter reached its destination. I’m not even sure I wrote the right hospital. But just after Christmas, fifty grand was deposited into his inmate account. And my status was sealed in his eyes.
Months passed. I was caught up in the world of my characters. He was caught up in his new-found wealth. Occasionally I would look up and see him smashing a honeybun or a nutty bar. Once in a while I would walk into the bathroom and be confronted by a horrific scene involving him, feces, and bad aim. I knew that the guy caring for him was more interested in enjoying Donny’s canteen food than making sure he was okay. But at least he changed his sheets, cleaned up his messes, and walked him to chow. I rationalized what I saw by telling myself that it was a mutually beneficial relationship. Dude was doing something that nobody else wanted to do.
Because Donny saw me as advocate and ally, he would sometimes hobble over to my bunk and say things like “I want to go to the infirmary.” Why man? What’s up? Are you sick? “Naw. I just don’t like it in here…” Well hang in there. You’ve only got 18 months left. “Damn, that’s a long time!” He was always surprised when I told him his release date. He could never remember. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. He had no idea what year it was. I pacified him by telling him I’d write the warden requesting a transfer to his hometown of Zephyr Hills. But I never got around to it.
Then Covid hit and the library closed. I was in the dorm for six extra hours a day. Suddenly all the things I conveniently ignored were constantly in my face. Donny weighed less than 150 when he got off the bus. Skin and bones. Now he was easily 250 from pounding sweets all day. Itchy red sores littered the landscape of his body. His feet were swollen and purple. His area reeked of urine. His pendulum swung from listless mumbling to angry ranting with fewer moments of clarity in between. The medical department was indifferent. The guards saw but didn’t see. And all his caretaker seemed to care about was eating his canteen food. My conscience grew louder. He needed me. But how could I let the other guy know that his services were no longer required? Especially since relieving him of his duties meant taking food out of his mouth.
In the end, the Universe intervened. A corona outbreak in the kitchen dorm prompted the need for 100 new food service employees. Shady caretaker guy was one of the lucky lottery picks. So he packed his shit (and probably half of Donny’s) and moved to another building. A few days later, someone in my dorm tested positive and we were placed on quarantine. During those 14 days, the old man must’ve peed in his bed 21 times. I’ll spare you the details of some of our other adventures but believe me when I say it was not your typical male bonding experience.
That was three months ago. Today, I’m proud to report that my good friend Pickatree is back to his old gruff, womanizing, politically incorrect self. A steady diet of oatmeal, tuna, eggs, peanut butter, trips to the rec yard, regularly scheduled bathroom visits, and basic human kindness have made all the difference. Sometimes I worry about what’ll become of him when he gets out, but I try to stay focused on the things I can control. My mission is to get him to the door. The rest is in God’s hands.
“Donny. You’re worth 50 grand! What’s the first thing you’re gonna buy when you get out?”
“Ice cold Busch beer. When do I get out again?”
“Right around fifteen months.”
“Damn.” He shakes his head. “That’s a long time.”
One thought on “Pickatree”
I finally had a chance to read this. Malcom, I know you through Kelly Conrad. She introduced me to your writing which I find to be wonderfully thought provoking. Each book and blog have impacted me in some way. You are truly talented. In this post in particular, your heart for human kindness shines. Thank you for all you have put out into the world, the one where you are and the one you give us insight to see.