There is Always a Next Time

July 21, 2017

I am bent over at the waist, undoing the tight laces of the grubby-white New Balance trainers I wear to work out. The sweat gathered at the hair of my temples escapes in rivulets through the scrub of my unshaven face. The door to my cell is three quarters open. I am too exhausted to secure my padlock after an aggressive morning workout.

A shadow flutters in the sunlight where I am standing. My right foot shoots out behind me, into my cell, ripping the laces away from my fingers and planting my balance to shift away from the impending contact.

I feel the wind of the makeshift cudgel passing my face before it smashes into the concrete floor inside my cell. Thirteen inches of broken broom handle, half a dozen rusted D-Cell batteries, strips of state-issue sheets and brown packing tape, scatter into the space behind me, shattered by the force of the intended blow. Where did they find D-Cells?

The world slows.

I look up to see my assailant bathed in light. His own shadow obscures his face, but not his fear. I do not fight unless I need to. This man has made violence necessary. I am not angry for his assault. I am angry for what I now must do to protect myself. Not from this attack, from the next.

He is off balance from the miss. I grab the wrist of his open hand and twist back toward the bars. He cries out and falls into the door, sliding open until it bangs into the frame, breaking the relative silence of the unit. I grab the front of his shirt and pull him off the galley and into my cell.

My bed is a steel frame jutting from the wall. He hits his head before squirming loose, trying to scramble under and away from me. The squeak of sneakers on the painted floor sound like sports in a gym to anyone who’s never heard a fight in this prison. I’m on my knees, alternating punches and clutches, trying to drag the animal from under my bed so I can hurt it.

He’s wiry, with a long reach, holding me at bay. When he spins his legs to kick at me I catch him by the front of his jeans. Once his body slides it’s over with. There’s nothing but floor to hold on to. I get him out far enough to kneel him in place and stun him. I hit him hard, twice before he goes fuzzy and stops struggling. I pull him out and go to work.

For a moment I stop to think. I’ve worked hard to get myself to a good place. I’ve got some things going for me. People don’t see me the way they saw me after I came in. I think about the good job and the easy mornings. The man beneath me sputters and I remember he would not have stopped. And I might not be so lucky next time. Unless there is no next time.

I pick up the ancient batteries rolled against the wall, one for each hand. I measure out the rhythm in my head and start a slow count. I hear the heavy slap of my weighted hands keeping time, well before my eyes register what I’m doing. Left. Right. Left. Right. One. Two. Three. Four. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

My guys do not penetrate the fugue when they rush me to pull me off him. One of them drags the unconscious body back to his cell. Another collects the batteries and wood from the floor. Another stands me at my sink and washes my hands. My fingers hurt from clenching D-Cells. My shoulders cramp. I stare at a basin filled with cloudy pink water because the drain is bad. I wonder how long his blood will be in my sink.

They take my shirt and walk me down to the showers so they can mop up my floor without having four guys at my cell. About halfway down the stairs I snap out of it and ask them is he dead. Nobody talks. We just shuffle down the tier.

~AF

Road to Brave

July 17, 2017

Wouldn’t turn away/
Not for all you’ve got for sale/
Pardon me I’ve got to say/
Wouldn’t you prefer to leave your dignity complete, for all I’ve seen it seems to me it might be weighing heavy on you/

I’ve got a road to brave/
I keep breaking and re-breaking your heart/
I got a way that I might finally see things through/
Alone/

Cull a sacred flower/
Reap from all you’ve ever sown/
Couldn’t name the hour/
Wouldn’t you prefer to lay a delicate refrain and save the words we say for Love from weighing heavy on you/

I got a road to brave/
I keep breaking and re-breaking your heart/
I got a way that I might finally see things through/
Alone/

I am sure that I am/
Farthest from your mind/
I am warning I am/
Not that hard to find/
On the morning when I’ve come/

I got a road to brave/
I keep breaking and un-breaking your heart/
I got a way that I might finally see things through/
Alone/

Between you and me I don’t feel like this is something I can let go/
Between you and me I don’t feel like this is something I can let go/
Between you and me I don’t feel like this is something I should let go/
Between you and me I don’t feel like this is something I should let go/

~AF

(super)hero #1

June 24, 2017

From this height you could look down at the city and see anything you wanted. The blanket of night covered well beyond the western horizon, but it still felt early.

Most of the noise amidst the skyscrapers from the streets below was still being made by families, early dates, late stragglers working their way home after long days at the office. The criminal element didn’t emerge until late. Later, it seemed, than it used to. When it emerged at all.

A figure draped in black perched on the edge of the maintenance deck for the antenna cluster. A peak of sorts, in a skyline of blinking peaks. Gusts of wind summoned their way up to engulf the folds of his cape and billow it out into a black flag. He cocked his head, listening intently for a sound that wasn’t there. Nothing rose above the whistles and howls swirling around him. There were no sirens wailing in the distance. No cries for help in the crackling echo of the earpiece in his cowl. There were no crises, no distress for his concern.

“Shit.”

He stood, shaking his head, and scanned the hundreds of feet below him. He leaned into a hot vent blasting up from the street. He hung for a moment, above the chasm, and fell.

~AF

Life Jazz

July 6, 2017

dissonance (dis’e-nens) n. 1. A harsh, disagreeable combination of sounds; discord. 2. Lack of agreement, consistency, or harmony; conflict. 3. Music. A combination of tones contextually considered to suggest unrelieved tension and require resolution.

I am not a Jazz guy. Where dissonance ranks in the hierarchy of device. I love Jazz, it is simply not my ‘go to’ genre. Not in music anyway. As a songwriter I am happiest when I land in a pop-ish neo-soul/folk/Americana territory. I write cleanly in the pocket, rely on lyric to drive the substance of my work, and use the music behind the melody to provide familiar foundation for a broad audience. At least I try. When it comes to people, especially in creative collaboration, the jazz man cometh.

Introduction. Rhythm of exchange, cadence. You sit here and I will…stand, no, sit, over here. Will you lead or will I. I prefer to defer and get a sense of what you bring to the table. The hi-hat counts us in and we’re off.

Melody. Beat the scrub to find the path. Is it straight or does it meander, is it both? Guided meditation toward discovery. I knock gently from stage left to wonder aloud where we’re headed. Wasn’t there a left turn at Albuquerque? No, no, you drive. I’m just asking for the sake of axing.

Thumping rhythm and the clack-clack of hands furious, meeting the soft-worn wood of the bass. There is a foundation for what we do. In every meeting where men and women of purpose gather there is an ode to be found. Notes to be played. A song.

No two artists every play the same. Even when you bring the same players back to the stage, they aren’t beginning anew. They resume their masterwork, take up the bars again. A coda to the music of lives intertwined. Improvisational by design. Intentional by nature.

We dance without knowing how the next bar might turn. Snatching away at the next set of black ovals that translate toward meaning. Symbols for words made of symbols for sounds made of symbols for feeling. Writing the railway as we barrel down the tracks. Frenzied for knowing the next slip could foul the whole measure.

Many are listeners. The world needs music lovers. Though if you are able you ought to take up your instrument and learn to play. When the music of the world goes unwritten, when the craft of lives intertwined goes unsung, everybody everywhere shines a little less brightly for the loss. And the players on stage grow a little more weary.

I do not apologize for my insistence that every moment then is fraught with meaning. Only that in my hurry to discover the next phrase I can overlook the layabouts. And in my sometimes hunger for complement I see adept where there is only aficionado with potential. But I have learned to slow the tempo to grow the base. And let the music find me instead of the other way around. And at the end of it all just play.

~AF

Tolerate

June 28, 2017

I came to the secured unit door after work. All of Industry and Education had already switched back in, per usual. OFC Brown was assigned to the door. He unlocked it and let me in.

AF: What’s up, Brown?

B: What’s goin’ on, Fait?

AF: Same old, man. You all right?

B: Yeah. Hold up though, I got to pat you down?

AF: What? You’re kidding right?

B: Nah, man. LT says that when y’all are comin’ back from Industry we’re on the number system, but everybody comin’ back on a pass has to get a pat search.

AF: But I’m not comin’ back from a pass, I’m comin’ back from work.

B: Oh yeah, what’s your pass say?

AF: I don’t have a pass.

B: Oh, really? Where are you comin from that you don’t have a pass.

AF: Chapel.

B: Right. You see these new cameras they just put in? (gestures above the door) They ain’t here to watch you. They here to watch me. All that warden does all day is sit up in his office watching the cameras to make sure I do what he tells me. I used to stand out in the hallway, but LT says this is [my] unit, I gotta do em inside the door.

(blue nitrile gloves are on. the discussion portion of the search is over with. a guard is like a referee, or your boss; they aren’t always right, but they’re never wrong. winning the argument can only make things worse.)

A standard pat search is something like the TSA search, depending on who does it. The problem with Brown is that he’s an aggressive search. And it wasn’t but a couple of weeks ago that he stopped me in Corridor to search me because I ‘looked suspicious’. I know you can’t see me, or know how I move. I might be the least suspicious looking guy around here.

(hands at my shoulders, working down my arms as though testing whether my muscle is ripe, pressed along my torso, front and back, smoothing my state issue T-shirt for a wrinkle that isn’t there)

There was a blonde guard in my last unit. She played similar games, but I knew where she was coming from. She was right in the middle of the pat-down-aggression-spectrum. And she never pulled me over just to paw at me.

(around my waist, pulling the pockets of my sansabelt denim away from my body to check if I am stupid enough to smuggle in my pockets, allowable contact on my thighs begins just outside my bathing suit area, if my bathing suit is a European-cut trunk short.)

AF: No, I work in the chapel. “Chapel Worker” is my job. I don’t have a pass because I’m returning from work.

B: Oh. Well…you have a nice day, Fait.

Getting felt up on a (supposedly) random and regular basis is part of this life. No less an invasion for its necessity, but you grow accustomed to it. I’m not going to sit here and pretend to feel violated by routine. That’s why Brown’s conduct is red flag. There are a handful of reasons to single me out. A couple of which I might have even encouraged in blonde guard. But Brown isn’t really my type. So, he’s trying to be funny, thinks I’m actually on one, maybe he has a thing for me, or maybe he’s just trying to cover his own ass by lingering too close to mine. I could ask him a thousand different ways and never get a straight answer.

So it’s another piece of routine. Ask the questions you can’t answer. Tolerate the uncertainty. Pay attention to the Browns of this world and be prepared for every one of the possible answers to be the actual answer. And otherwise let things go.

~AF

P.S. ~ (June 29, 2017) So, obviously, Brown’s name isn’t really Brown. But when I passed him today and called him “Brown” he looked genuinely hurt, thinking I forgot his name. And it isn’t like I can explain I’ve been writing about his behavior out in the world…I feel real smart right now.

Into Darkness

June 26, 2017

The power goes out. A surge of noise brimming bedlam rises from the galley. Through the vents and the vibration of the walls and the floor I can hear the entire prison plunged into darkness.

The gravity leaves my feet and my possessions float just above their recent surfaces. The world begins to roll. The building becomes a tumbler in motion. All of us so much soft tissue to be ground away as polish for the stones we were mined for.

My brain maintains the true Earth is beneath my feet. But the bars point beneath and away from me, as though I am being dumped out of my cage and into the windows across from my cell.

The hundred year steel of my door groans in a death knell. Warping in on itself blows out the anchors from the concrete arch. Explosions in miniature send flecks of stone and grit in every direction as the crumpled gate floats out into the air.

The prison was not meant to tumble. The unseen seams of construction reveal themselves under the shifts and heaves of the block unaccustomed to weightlessness.

I push against the back wall and launch myself across the crumbling threshold, in the direction of an opening seam in the ceiling. The collapse around me feels like thunder and sounds like a freight train, the way a freight train sounds like a tornado.

Floating in the air, in the Nothing. Not so much resurrected as emergent. In the moment I know I am dreaming. Only the waking world feels ethereal. And I can’t quite remember where I came from, where I’m going, or why.

Of the gates that lead toward home, one of horn and one of ivory, bad and good, the mistake was to believe that it mattered which one you chose. Underneath the artifice of matter they were always made of the same stuff, and mostly space.

The choice is just a decoration. A bauble for the guileless. What better way to toy with fate, than darkened choose the ivory gate?

Though I am told that we didn’t come here to make the choice. But to understand why we’ve made it.

~AF

Mischief

June 20, 2017

mischief (mis’chif) n. 1. Behavior that causes discomfiture or annoyance in another. 2. An inclination or tendency to play pranks or cause embarrassment.

3. At around nine pm, after the sunset prayer (Maghrib) is called, I gather up my food and lock in to break my fast. Even though the days cooled this past week, I have continued preparing an iced mocha style drink to have with my meal.

I plug in my hot pot before I pray and break my fast. In the small coffee cup I mix generic freeze dried Colombian, cocoa, creamer, and a packet of sweetener. To save my own coffee I use as many of the single serving packets of “Deep Rich Instant Coffee” from our breakfast bags as I can scrounge to offset my stores. I add hot water to make a concentrate that I pour over ice in a larger plastic mug. Voila, iced mocha.

I started out struggling to not make a mess. When I poured out the contents into the larger cup, it would splash over the sides. Disaster. When I poured too carefully it would just dribble down the front of the small cup. Also disaster. For the first week or so I repeated this precarious failure laden mixology over my toilet bowl to preemptively ease the cleanup. I’m real smart though. So after the ninth or tenth round of pouring in abject terror, I figured out that if I filled the cup half full of ice, the splash wouldn’t come over the sides. Real smart.

Tonight when I was giving my cell a once over cleaning, I discovered a single rivulet of brown running down the outside of my toilet bowl to a dried and crusted spot of mocha pooled on the floor. Make no mistake, it looks exactly like poo.

When we move from cell to cell, for various reasons, first order of business is to clean away as much of what remains from the last guy as is chemically possible. Most guys would bleach, and then torch a cell, every time they moved if they could. The best moves are the ones where the last guy was relatively clean and had just made a weekly pass before having to pack up. Dust bunnies are common, so is a certain amount of grit collected on the floor. Open bars for one of four walls means your cell is never really “clean” for very long.

Keep in mind, some of these guys are hanging on by a very thin thread. Sure, a lot of guys are slobs, and might never even notice anything collected on the almost backside of the toilet bowl. But most guys I know, the adults in the room, they are going to end up nearly cheek to bowl with that miniature trail of sugared and chocolate infused caf dried to the back of my commode. It would ruin his day. It would ruin my day if it was me that found it, and how.

There’s no way anybody’s going to believe that it’s not the remnant of an “almost made it” trip to the back of the cell. An overshot of brown artillery that got missed in the disarmament after the war. If it were discovered, there would be no persuading the victim of the pseudo-dookie’s true provenance. Especially if I wasn’t here to lend my credibility to the alternative (albeit true) explanation. The minor chaos for the lack of actual offense is tempting…alluring even.

I’m going to clean it up. By the time you read this, I probably already have. But in some alternate reality, some guy down the road lost his mind for his discovery of what he thought was my shit left for him to clean up from the back of my toilet.

That’s a little bit funny…I don’t care who you are.

~AF

In the Prison Yard

June 18, 2017

Where I live we have one yard. It looks like a prison yard. Basketball courts with uneven asphalt. Softball diamond with a rickety scorekeeper’s box behind the backstop. A couple of standalone brick walls mark the handball courts. There is a strip of grass that runs along the main exterior wall. Inside of that is the blacktop running track that encircles the football/soccer/kickball field, in the corner of which the aforementioned softball diamond is situated.

The running track isn’t quite a quarter mile. The avid runners know how to mark their distances. They’ve told me how it breaks down, and I’ve run 5K’s here before, but my brain has decided not to retain that information. What I usually do when I’m working out in the yard is a combination of jogging, sprints, and calisthenics. I’ll run a lap, sprint the last fifty yards, and do a set of pull ups. Repeat that four times. Do the same with dips and crunches. I end up with just under three miles and a decent resistance workout.

The other day, after warming up my ailing mess of a body, I started off my first lap. In front of me were these two kids…people in here would call them “gumps”, as in Forrest Gump. It’s a generic term for any weirdo or misfit in this place. I didn’t invent it. I don’t use it. It’s a designation for use by bullies. It describes the social order.

If you were looking for the best allegory for our social structure here, start by imagining all the worst parts of junior high. Now multiply them by five, and make it an “Alternative Learning Center”. Now subtract all of the girls except the teachers and the lunch ladies. Now lower the mean intellect by twenty percent. Now make it a boarding school. Got the picture?

I never speak for all prisons, not even the prisons in my state. A couple quick notions to dispel. The rape thing hasn’t been an issue in this state for some time. It wasn’t an issue in the late 90’s when I was younger and might have been a target. It hasn’t been a problem in the few years since I’ve been back either. Men who like other men find each other. Though, I wouldn’t exactly consider this a place to find your soul mate.

Second, the idea that sex offenders get the worst of it is kind of a misnomer. The people in here who extort and exploit other people might use someone’s case as an excuse to target them, but the fact is bullies in here are just like bullies out there. Bullies victimize the weak and the outsiders, the odd ducks. The gumps.

So these two kids in front of me are racing each other to a table on the other side of the yard. A cell key, belonging to one of them, went flying out of a pocket and into the grass on the interior field. After I passed it, I looked around and saw that no one else had seen where the key landed, or even noticed its flight to begin with. Having kept running while considering all of this, I had to backtrack a little bit, against traffic, to pick up the key and go return it. The kid thanked me and I went on my way.

They say character is who you are when no one else is looking. And it occurs to me that writing all of this down for you kind of blows up the ‘nobody’s looking’ part of the maxim. But I’m not telling you about the good deed I did so you’ll confuse me for a good guy.

There are a growing number of men in this place who have decided that if we invest in the notion of our prison as a community, others will see our example and follow suit. The idea being that we can change the experience of prison from one of mere suffering to an opportunity for transformation. That means engaging in and paying attention to all manner of details that push the needle on that idea in the direction we want it to go.

The kids racing reminded me of an argument I had with the warden of the last facility I was in. He and his associate warden mistakenly believed that their social and administrative position meant that I should accept their opinion and treatment of me as a given of their authority. In my eventual letter to the commissioner, describing their unprofessional behavior, I wrote:

“I learn almost all I need to know about a person in this place when I see how they treat someone they think they don’t have to respect.”

I don’t know what either of those kids did to get here and I don’t care. I don’t care if they’re gay. I don’t care if they’re slow. I don’t care if they’re just different because they haven’t figured out how to belong in a place where nobody should have to. It was enough for me to have noticed that they felt safe enough to be running around outside on a summer day, and feel like that was a good thing. And the guy who saw the yard swallow up their house key was juuust decent enough to go after it, and treat them like human beings. For whatever that’s worth….

~AF

Outside Inside

June 17, 2017

We don’t have air conditioning. We have these huge windows where the panes have all been replaced in a patchwork with this plexiglass material that is meant to be opaque, but it just looks dirty all the time.

The topmost panel of smaller panes opens via this giant geared wheel at the floor. It creaks and groans like nails on a chalkboard every time it gets hot enough for them to think we need a breeze.

It’s all right though. I don’t mind basically being outside all summer. The air in my cell is the same as the air on the outside those windows. It makes the wood on my guitar expand and contract. And my strings seem to deaden in the muggy oven of late afternoon. But I don’t mind.

When it rains the smells of cut grass and the steaming asphalt of the parking lot waft up into the block and for a moment it just feels like regular summer. The cooling air carries away some of the weight.

I’m reminded of a few years ago when I still played competitive sports in here. When I was still young enough. I was in a different facility. They had floodlights in their yard, so we could be out there at night.

The football season was almost over. We had made the playoffs, so we could just horse around and not give a shit about winning games. The thunderheads rolled in during the fourth quarter and made the lights kick on a couple hours early. The skies opened and the field flooded, but the guards, they just let us play.

We hydroplaned and muddied up. Took as much of the dirt in our teeth as we possibly could. Tracked the yard into the unit and took over the washing machines for the night. Went to bed tired, but for the right reasons. Content.

~AF

The Twenty-Seventh Letter

June 7, 2017

A writer I respect told me she loves the way that we use time in our writing. Something about our experience of incarceration allows for a unique perspective. There are ways we pass time in here, there are ways we mark the passage of time in here. We use these various devices because they are at our disposal.

The turnover of faces who have less time than we do. The distance from one routine lockdown to the next. How long since the last outsized display of violence. Change in wardens. Years. Decades.

The science has begun to pervade the culture. Human imagination is becoming accustomed to the concept of a consciousness outside of time. Ideas about the multiverse and the possible interchange between dimensions, these theories are making their way into the mainstream.

I have decided that I like it when my brain changes. I enjoy having to adjust to the new content in my old(er) skin. I like not being the man I was yesterday. I like waking up from a dream and finding myself between two iterations of me. Getting to mourn and rejoice at the intersection of the being and ending…it seems as though you would have to be in two times at once.

I am in my bed in my parents’ house. I am sixteen on a school day. The alarm goes off and I hit snooze. I dream myself into an hour or more. My unconscious given the reins again. When the alarm sounds again, only nine minutes have passed. Whether the universe I dreamt is imagined or objectively “real”, my experience of that time exists in my memory.

If time doesn’t mean what it used to, what does that say of the hours in my cell? If objective time is spatial, a moment existing always, our consciousness only passing through it, then I am always in prison. I am always typing these words. I am always changed and never changing.

I tried to explain how, my heart having finally been broken all the way through, I didn’t want to bother with the repair. I felt safer in my brokenness, my pain making me a better person. Now I wonder if I just missed on the semantic arrangement of my sorrows. Perhaps I cling to my brokenness the way I would lounge on the porch during an afternoon thunderstorm? The grey sunlight and the cool, damp air. I can imagine myself into the wooden rocking chair, creaking under my weight. The warmth of the grain of the weathered arms, soothing the restlessness of my grasping hands. I may well leave my swaying sadness for new love and brighter climes. I am also as likely to reacquaint myself with darkness again one day.

The new notion that all of this thinking about time has given me is the deeper awareness that I am in fact always on that porch. I can fill my lungs with that same cool air while I am lying in the grass with a new lover in a moment years from now. I will not have forgotten the above scene any more than I will have forgotten these compositions, or this stone cubby where I write them. If time exists in an objective sense and our being/soul/consciousness is the thing that’s moving (an idea that seems to make more sense the more I think about it), then the paths of our lives have charted and we are simply making turns as they present themselves.

This would not mean our lives are already set. Rather, every possible outcome of our decisions, past/present/future, would be set. Meaning that our experience of life would still be determined according to our choices. And instead of our paths being created at the inception of our idea to choose between them, they exist already as available options for us to travel. Which dangles the enticement of awareness.

If my consciousness exists as an experience of my life in time, and my experience of time can be altered or modified as in a dream, where can I find the equipment to navigate backward or in between the other choices I might have made? Also, I would do well to remember that even though a moment may be brilliant, I am always also sunken in my chair, watching the thunderheads roll in over the plain.

~AF