A. Whitfield, currently incarcerated at Antioch prison in California, continues his story of endurance, patience, and principle.
If you haven’t read part one, check it out here.
Above the sink, mounted securely to the steel wall, the cell’s mirror waits. Mirrors can only serve the young, the vain, the guiltless. I try to avoid its gaze. The mirror can’t be trusted—it’s a liar. It’s blind to the tragedy, the goodness, the thousands of sorrows in every man’s heart. It tells me that I am alone, abandoned, trapped in a scheme, that there’s no solace owed for any hope of freedom. Yet I am unable to resist.
Raising my head, I peer and electricity surges through my veins, flowing through every pore, charging every hair. “My God,” I scream in silence. It’s not myself I see, but the leering face of an old man. I meet his cold blue stare, examining his woeful grin. His face is graven with cynicism and apathy.
Water drips from his tonsured head, making his thin cotton tee transparent, exposing the sagging remains of a once sculpted chest. Crops cling to the wispy silver-and-black hair surrounding his pate. It’s tanned and bare and glistening under the cell’s harsh light. A hand appears in the mirror and lightly roams down his craggy visage, pausing to pinch the wide mouth parting his hoary beard and mustache. The hand disappears, then returns, holding a toothbrush bristling with ice-blue paste. He pauses…. breathing deeply and rhythmically, like someone wanting to speak, but frustrated, afraid to shape the feelings and thoughts into words. I feel his frustration. I know his fear.
He hates being old. He hates being anything. He hates being confronted every morning by the ugly realization that it’s going to be one more day in his life, that days that are slipping away into loneliness, monotony, and longing. The unrequited desire for freedom is the most painful. He wants to cry out: “I was a kid. I’ve changed. I’ll prove I’ve changed. I’m a good person.” But there’s no one, anywhere, to whom he can please.
I try to push these thoughts into another cabinet of my mind: “Things useless to dwell on.”
I bend and take a draft of water directly from the spigot, spit, and begin a mechanical brushing, polishing up and down, with increasing pressure until I see that the white foam at the corners of my mouth has a pink tint. Frustration and anger penetrate every action. I can’t brush it away, can’t wash it away, can’t wish it away. Another draught, rinse. Spit.
A quick pass of my tongue, my teeth are clean. This meticulous cleaning was once about vanity, before prison cast its shadow across my face. I rarely smile now. Smiles communicate happiness, contentment, hope. Now it’s all about endurance.
I lift my belted pants from one of two hooks welded to the wall above my bunk. As I’m fastening the buckle, it strikes me that I’m fortunate to still have pants with belt loops. Recently, an over-zealous guard has been on a mission to confiscate the “altered” pants. One of the many mysteries of Antioch is the taboo on pants with belt loops. A cynical laugh escapes. Good fortune has been reduced to being allowed to keep my pants. What the hell will it be tomorrow? What happened to those prisons where the guards just want to put in their eight hours without going out of their way to fuck with you? Where are they? Not here, not this morning.
I pull the bed covers over the exposed sheet and sit on the edge of the mattress. I reach for the small red hot-pot on the shelf at the head of my bunk, standing guard like a squatty sentinel. Jousting it fondly by its polished black handle, I twist it, sloshing the liquid around in its barrel. I remove its black cap and inspect the contents. Metal hot-pots have fallen victim to recent changes in prison policy; their replacements are plastic, clear, and won’t reach a boil. Is it prison, or is everything plastic?
When I came to prison, personal pagers were a marvel, punk was replacing disco, and a hamburger at McDonald’s was 40 cents. I can’t imagine how much the world has changed. I don’t want to. It scares the hell out of me to think about what I don’t know I don’t know. And yet, with all of my being, I live to find out.
I return the pot to its post and plug it into the receptacle. Listening to the creak and rattle as it begins to heat, I wonder how many times I’ve made this very motion … too many times to count, I decide. Still, I can’t prevent myself from asking the red pot, “How many more times will you serve me before they come after you?”
People on the outside might think it absurd if they could see the affectionate attachments those on the inside develop for inanimate objects. People on the outside are outside.
Looking out onto the gallery, I see the morning sun has thrown bright barred patterns across the bare tile. Like most mornings in the joint, even such radiance cannot mask the thunderhead of a stormy day of emotional trials. I don’t give a shit … but I have to endure them.
The guard’s face keeps creeping into my mind. Over the years I’ve come to know many like him, with eyes projecting the malevolence and indolence seen in the eyes of pigs, those snorting, gnashing, sweating bores that I used to see in the pens in Smithfield, Virginia.
Condensation creeps across the wall like a colony of bacteria, bringing my attention back to the boiling pot. In one well-practiced movement, I unplug the pot and press the power button on the television. Like me, the TV is old, showing signs of failure. I wait—nothing. I reach for my cup as the televisions awakens with a deafening broadcast of CNN throughout the block. Hurriedly I twist the volume control, but not in time to prevent my neighbor’s exaggerated shushing. There was a time, when I was much younger and thought I had something to prove, I would have been waiting at my gate when it opened to punch his shushing ass in the mouth. The past 25 years have taught me to ignore the shushing asses of this world or be prepared to fight continuously, a dangerous, unwinnable fight. There are convicts—hard, bitter, evil—that would kill over a shush.
Time has taught them, too. Now I just give him a silent finger, spoon a healthy measure of Folgers into my cup, and chase it with steaming water.
The coffee’s aroma teases my nose. I blow a cooling breath over the cup’s rim, rippling the dark. I can’t imagine starting the morning without a cup of coffee. Chances are the rest of the day is going to be downhill from here. Seldom does anything unexpectedly pleasant occur in the joint. Certainly not here—not this morning.
The cells open for the chow run. Mine remains closed. Did I really hold out hope that it would open? I nod, reassuring myself that I did not. What have I missed—stale bread, cold cold coffee, and colder oatmeal? I remember a time when the chow line served up breakfast of biscuits and sausage gravy, eggs and hash browns, even fresh grapefruit and piping hot coffee. Times have changed.
When the cells open it’ like opening a box of noise—green-clad bodies of white, brown, and tan rush by my cell, flooding my ears with such pressure that it forces my eyelids down. Once assembled, the lines of men move slowly out of the block, like giant ants on the trail to a picnic. One by one, they pass through the doorway into the corridor … mostly kids with tousled hair and stupid grins. The years of hardship, frustration, and apathy haven’t yet limned their way onto these faces. One morning they’ll wake up and not recognize the face staring back at them from the mirror.
As the line recedes, the boss lid begins to close. Noise follows the paced steps until all is once again quiet.
A window or door has been left open and a chilling draft creeps into the cell, stalking my naked toes. Reaching overhead, I blindly search the clothesline of knotted shoestrings for a pair of socks. Once white and new and fresh, the socks have become stained and stretched and rent. Nothing—and no one—ages imperceptibly in the joint.
I reach for my cup of coffee. I’m surprised at how quickly it has cooled. I own it and sit in pleasing silence, thinking of nothing but the gratification another cup might provide.
The socks, like the prison itself, are cold and damp. Slowly, I work them on, wiggling my toes in satisfaction that they will finish drying on my feet. In search of my boots, I sweep below the bunk with a well-muscled arm, mapped darkly with illustrations of spider webs, skulls, and ribbons filled with names and aphoristic maxims of long forgotten women and abandoned principles.
I find the boots, askew amongst the collection of dust and accumulated bits of fingernail clippings and paper wrappers. My protest against regulations for cleaning our cells. Now, scuffed and cracked, the boots are more blue-gray than black, with a perceptible air of mildew. Pulling them from their dusty niche, my eyes embrace the torn stitching, their frayed laces, the worn soles, and they seem a reflection of my life—rough and tattered, trampled down by years of doing time, and yet, in spite of appearances, sturdy enough to serve some purpose. I drop the boots at my feet, against a welling of despair; this will not be the last pair of state-boots I’ll be issued. State-boots … they’re unmistakable, a shibboleth of the convict. Many who avoid calendars mark time by the issue of boots.
Spinning the band-less watch atop my locker so that I can see its fluorescent green face, I realize that the sated crowd will soon return from chow. Time is more complex in prison than in any other place. Not only is there the rotation of the sun and the changing of the seasons, but a man’s term grinds out the passage of time; the seconds, minutes, hours, are inconsequential. Time is a mosaic of years, decades, lifetimes.
I decide against a second cup of coffee.
I push the power button and return the television to darkness. I hadn’t been watching or listening. For me, the television provides only a despairing, one-sided contact with the world.
Men are filing back into the block. A small, almost effeminate hand thrusts two pieces of burnt toast through the bars.
Nice gesture. I pitch them in the toilet.
Another morning begins its sluggish journey into early afternoon. So the mornings go, one little different than the next. The sun rises and sets and rises again. Tomorrow morning will hold no more promise than this one, or the ten thousand that preceded it. Tomorrow is just another name for today. The beginning to one less day that I owe.
Reclining on the bunk, I cross my legs and allow my feet to dangle over the side, careful to keep my boots from soiling the covers. I place my hands between the pillow and my head, interlacing my fingers, and stare into the nothingness of my ceiling.
“Not this morning, asshole.”
Not so easily hidden away in a cabinet, I suppose. Shortly he’ll make the round, taking the noon chow list. I hope he’s found someone else to play his games with. I try to get him out of my thoughts, but the harder I try, the more I think of him. Turn on my side. Gradually his face slips from my consciousness, my eyelids draw closed, narrowing and shrinking my cell to a pinpoint of light. I see the sun, feel the crystalline white sand granules pass between my toes, warming them, guiding me towards the frothy foam. There, dancing and splashing, in the crashing surf under a gull’s laughter, she stands waiting.
—Photo John Steven Fernandez/Flickr