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

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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

Untitled Spoken Word Piece

June 05, 2017

Good morning, all. I haven’t a title for this piece yet. If anyone has any suggestions I welcome them. We have a reading in a couple weeks. I promise to honor the chosen suggestion with a dedication before I begin.

Oddly enough, you have to read the ‘spoken word’ piece rather than hear my delivery. My apologies, the world being what it is. I’m on my third revision. Here goes:

The greyed dawn is long gone, the curtain of night drawn close
Your echoing frustration and papering comments thrown down
A gauntlet of wishing you could compare

A gust blown through the captain’s cabin and we become navigable
Imagine that you and I are a “we”
Without asking whether or not you see me
The way that I see…you

Perhaps your idea of darkness deserves revision
(your) Decisions in ignorance build bridges of confusion
(my) Derision of you born of retribution

You think being Billy badass has made you hard
You are made weak by your stupid stubborn failure
Absent of self-regard

Everybody wishes they could be strong without sacrifice
I question how much you value life until you’ve died twice
To realize to suffer yields the means to be alive

How bout you hollow out that loud mouth and take a ride
Will you remember to breathe like me after you’re dead inside

I am a dimensional membrane through which passes the gravity of the unseen
Didn’t you know, dark matter and energy rend the fabric of being
Madness is a tapestry
A compendium surmised the greater scene

Until you are able to sit patiently while you bleed out
Until you learn to exchange everything for a simple glimpse over the fringes
Until you summon the courage to annihilate your soul
Just to learn to start from scratch and then
Will yourself to begin again
From nothing

Your god is fear
Your god is selfishness
All praises to Allah (SWT) for His patience
That he allows us to exist

You don’t need me to point out that your life means nothing/If you want it to/A remedy exists/Within your grasp/Of all things spiritual/You just happened/To waste all this time/Getting to the point/Where your lizard brain was/Capable of standing firm/In the face of certain death/You need to look yourself in the eye/And be prepared to lose everything

You don’t need me to point out that your life means nothing if you want it to.
A remedy exists within your grasp, of all things spiritual.
You just happened to waste all this time getting to the point where your lizard brain was capable of standing firm.
In the face of certain death you need to look yourself in the eye.
In the face of certain death you need to look yourself in the eye.
And be prepared to lose everything

There is no secret to consciousness
Constant vigilance and a vigilante
Spirit to spring upon your shadow
A commensurate trap for all the
Sabotage it deservedly plagued on
Your sleeping soul

Sunlight disinfects where the basement
Once refused all egress
But you escape the dank corners where
The new life took hold
A bacterial reboot
Rebreaking the existential mold
Old habits will die hard
If the crucible is left cold

But a blue flame,
a diligent heart,
and a watchful I
could still transform this materia gold

~AF

Always Only Ever Eating Hot Lunch

June 3, 2017

I.
I thaw and peel a pound or so of large-to-jumbo size shrimp. I turn the stove on ‘high’ underneath the large skillet. I watch for a moment while at least one but no more than two generous pats of butter chase their way around the warming surface into sizzling liquid oblivion. I take a handful of shredded coconut from the bag I keep in the fridge and drop it into the center of the coated pan, distributing the pieces along the bottom like hash browns.

As soon as the coconut begins to fry evenly, I add the shrimp. The blending oils force the water out of the mix in wafting steam filled with the rich buttery smells of food happening. Before the shrimp can cook in earnest, I generously squeeze lime juice from a little green plastic bulb. The sputtering hiss of citrus from the milky white tropical broth transmutes the silence of my kitchen into the gentle breezes of an island coast.

Finally, I sprinkle brown sugar over the simmering reduction and marvel as it melts and disappears into my creation. The shrimp firms and the coconut crisps and it all ends up on the plates of my children. They scarf ravenously, unburdened by any distraction with craft. The smells of the cooking having triggered something primal in order to guide them toward joy.

II.
My parents were not cooks. By that I mean that all manner of their food decisions and preparation were suspect. My mother labored under the delusion that she was able to make and keep a home (one of many similar delusions), including her ability to make delectable meals, or successfully bake anything that did not come from a box. My father suffered from none of this confusion. He knew he had no place in the kitchen.

For my mother this meant the persistence of the white, four-fingered mascot of Hamburger Helper on the boxes in our overfilled trash can. I was twenty before I learned how vegetables were supposed to be prepared (besides flavorless mush and fried in cornmeal), and began to love them. And there were a handful of occasions where, rather than shifting the morning menu around, she insisted on serving us Bisquick pancakes…with corn syrup, demanding we accept it was the same as maple.

My father was more gender-stereotypical. Breakfast meant breakfast cereal (occasionally in bowls of juice when we were out of milk). We went to McDonald’s on weekends. Lunch meant Campbell’s and Chef Boyardee. I grew up playing favorites with the different pasta shapes believing there was any difference in the sauce or noodle composition. When we were alone for dinner, we spent an inordinate amount of time at the Hardee’s that sported a ball pit. What can I say, the man knew his limitations. I respect him for that.

To their credit, my brothers and I never knew what it means to be hungry. I was fat the way that America is now fat. It matters that I never, ever worried where my next meal came from. I can bitch about the food, but at least I always had some.

It is also with some ambivalence that I join our modern chorus against the hyper-preserved, meal-in-a-box, fast food ubiquity, model of factory-farm-to-table. I embrace the movement toward healthy eating. I live it as much as I can from where I’m at now. Still, I wonder whether I owe the agribusiness of instant meals my life. I was raised according to their easy-to-follow instructions after all.

It will not surprise you to know that I exclusively ate ‘hot lunch’ at school growing up. I wasn’t on a program or anything. I just ate exclusively from the school menu at lunch time, for the twelve years I went to public school.

III.
The food here is basically ‘hot lunch’ three meals a day, seven days a week. The culinary category, then and now, is “institutional”. There are a litany of inmate complaints that comprise a spectrum of legitimacy. As the DOC has wrestled costs over the past twenty years, the portions have gotten smaller, and processed food has taken over more of the tray. The closest we come to real cheese is when we get a shredded ‘fiesta’ mix that goes with most Latin-themed, sloppy joe meat selections. The food is not great. I don’t want to pretend we’re on the cusp of gourmet here.

The other night we had a breakfast meal for dinner. The scrambled eggs were a single mass in the shape they were scooped from the large pan they were steamed in. Jiggling and bouncing the way old mattress foam used to before it came with memory. You have to mash it into little rubber pellets before you can work clumpy salt and the dozen flecks of pepper from the single-serving packets still wet from your tray. The hash browns are soggy tater tots that sit in a greasy pile of potato gems that once held form in baked cylinders. The turkey bacon, a wizened pastiche of bacon, sits curled in its corner, begging for an end to the madness of its life’s charade. Last there were a few French toast sticks, holding to theme in their foamy composition. Their most surprising feature to me is their resistance to absorbing the kitchen-made syrup. You cut them into pieces and they just float atop the brownish puddle. You hold them under with your orange plastic fork and they bobber back up, surfacing in chemical defiance of design and expectation.

Switching to the spoon to foil the resistance of the bread, you notice your mouthful of cake and sugar is a little off. It takes a moment to place the flavor with the Karo label from a distant and backward memory…but you do.

IV.
The food is always enough to sustain, even if never to satisfy. Even apart from privation and hunger, the situation could be much, much worse. Have I lowered the bar in order to successfully navigate the chow hall? Absolutely, I have. Managing expectations is ninety percent of life anywhere and ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent of survival in here.

My mother forgets our conversations these days, so she constantly worries whether I’m getting enough to eat. I always answer the question as though I am hearing it for the first time. Wrestling the notion in the back of my mind that whoever makes the syrup in the kitchen seems to think my mom was on to something.

~AF

I Am Not Suicidal

May 31, 2017

When I was a teenager, struggling with identity and angry without knowing exactly why, I contemplated suicide.

When I sat in front of a counselor (he was one of the good ones) and told him I was thinking about it, he blew me off. He said that I was way too in love with myself to ever actually attempt anything. And he was right.

Still, there was this one time. I must have been fourteen or fifteen. I was at this big youth conference. The long weekend was held on the campus of a large Midwestern university. I was still too young to get into any serious trouble, but somehow managed to find my own version of serious trouble.

There were these kids from North Carolina. There was a girl from North Carolina. Heather. I called her Heathen. Not because she was an apostate, pagan, or heretic; it just sounded cool to riff on her name.

There were these guys from Nova Scotia. Totally cool, similarly misbehaviored as me. One of them went by “Pokey”. When you asked him why they called him Pokey, he just grinned. One of those guys hooked up with Heathen’s friend. He looked just like Kurt Cobain.

We all hung out for the time we had. Got on well. There may have been making out. And stealing cigarettes from a gas station. Harmless bullshit. Kid things.

There was a big open athletic field where rain and hoses had made a giant mud pit. There were crowds of people horsing around, having a clean Christian time of things. Heathen got smart as we crossed so I had to take her down.

To be fifteen and mud wrestling a cute girl from North Carolina, laughing and knowing how she’s into you. There are only so many moments like that in life.

That night I climbed as high as I could into a tree in front of the girls dorm, and fell.

I couldn’t breathe. I had hit a branch or two on the way down. They walked me to the hospital. X-ray was clear. They gave me a bottle of pills for the pain. Here’s where it stops making sense (to me too).

In my dorm that night I ate all the pills. Every single one. I don’t even remember their name. I was very high. I felt certain of my death. I left the room to be somewhere else when I passed.

I found the field where I’d wrestled Heather. By accident. There were these big hay bales around the mud pit where people had sat in the sun and been muddy. They were unwieldy. Weighed seventy-five to a hundred pounds.

I was dope-strong. Driven by my impending doom. I arranged a couple dozen or so in the shape of a cross while feeling penitent. I wonder if my counselor would have called bullshit.

I did not die. I don’t remember how bad I wanted to. I remember being sick though. Not-Heathen and Not-Pokey spent the day with me while I dry heaved every few minutes. I pretended not to know why I was sick.

I missed my goodbyes with the North Carolinians due to the odd schedule of bus departures. I had theirs and the Nova Scotian’s numbers though. I called a couple times.

That next week a hurricane made landfall not far from where the girls were from. I called just to make sure Heathen was okay. She was.

~AF