Photos by Amy Elkins
vening call and we skip the pig iron and pool tables in favor of strolling the track and circuit a few laps appraising the yard. Since it’s one of those dreary summer days we get here where the rain ain’t an if but a when, it’s looking mighty scarce. Only the diehards out on the pile, laying a soundtrack of grunting and yelling, while meantime a couple of dudes who wished to God they owned a decent jumper play four-on-four on the gravelly asphalt they call a court.
“Good fortune,” he says.
“So that,” I say, “is what it’s called?”
“No, that,” he says, “is what it is.”
“But to you and who else?” I say.
“To me, me, and me,” he says. “Who ain’t never had none. Who else you need?”
My celly’s a lifer on the wrong side of half his life and, most days, especially the ones he’s juiced off his world-famous Pruno, you can’t tell him—it’s just my luck I’m always linked with a bootleg philosopher—he ain’t Nietzsche, Heidegger, Harold Bloom. But best you mind the venom; the man is also built like a steroid robot with fists big as demolition balls and a teardrop (one he earned back when I was a wee bit) inked under an eye, which means when he speaks, fools—including me—listen.
“All bullshit aside, young’in, only a few finished, but the ones that did, ain’t been seen back behind the walls. Now, I don’t profess knowin’ what he do,” he says, “rumored a whole lot of talkin’ and scribblin’ and whatnot, but whatever it is, it seem to work. So if I was you…”
He stops short when a flabby guard moseys over and stands Gestapo-ish nearby.
“I don’t mind the company, but if these folks gon’ let you fast-track, you best get on it. Believe me when I tell you, you ain’t built for no long stretch.”
My robot-built celly proceeds to turn what should be a friendly shoulder tap into a fucking hematoma. Throbs later, when they sound the horn for the end of yard, the iron pumpers make a fracas of reracking the weights.
ap lopes in and the room freezes in moon-shaped rows of metal fold-ups, a handful of us—me included—with eyes wide as bottle caps and lips damn-near sutured. He takes his seat by the portable board, empties a duffel of books and notes, and sifts through them a moment without a word or an eye for any of us. Then he lurches to his feet, shifts what must be fossilized bones, clears his slack gullet, glances from face to face to face to face, and waits what must be a Julian light-year before he says this: “My friends, the world ain’t set up for guys like us to win, but that’s all the more reason to win.” His voice is deep, metallic, severe—a baritone so coarse there must be spikes in his throat. “And if you aren’t about winning,” Cap says, “then you should leave now. This program is not the place for chickenshits.”
It’s worth mentioning that nobody leaves, that don’t nobody utter a word.
Here might be why: On top of nursing our oh-so-coveted good time, some of us are here because we heard the legend, and the legend is, spectacles on or not, this man can see right through your diaphanous-ass curtain to your guarded lockbox, see what’s in that lockbox, then tell you not only that he spied it but, minus any hype whatsoever, how it might produce whatever you need, which, for the bulk of us, at least the ones with an inkling of sense, is an outbound ticket that lasts for all time.
With all the grand stories I heard, a nigger was half-expecting a real live in-the-flesh giant, but no sir, the truth is the man ain’t all that physically big. Matterfact, he’s intimidating about none, and probably wasn’t an ounce more imposing when they began calling him Captain, or Cap—way back when he beat the biggest case the state had ever seen, those salad days of his when, as the myth has it, he was worth more scrilla than a blue-chip stock; no—I’m thinking he couldn’t have been but average-size at best for the span of years a few decades back that he managed over and over the abracadabra-alakazam. And peep, this millennium Cap’s a welterweight, stooped to what’s likely an inch or so shy of his apex, with paper-white longish hair raked backward and a face etched in intricate grooves.
But check it, though, the man’s weathered mug is one thing, but his digs are a whole other situation: a pressed cream shirt buttoned to his throat, a pair of army-green cargo pants that look half as old as anybody I know, and boots tied tight enough to make the average motherfucker’s foot fall right off. He inches along the rows jacking arms and querying names, and it don’t take no 3-D glasses to see the deference they pay, respect from nefarious dudes with tattoos on their necks and knuckles, with gully-wide gashes on their cheeks, from the musclebound old head who runs the Commissary Mafia, all of us forfeiting afternoon yard.
Anybody’s guess why, when he finally reaches me, the name I give him is the one that no one, and I mean nobody, hears out my mouth unless I’m under oath. Not only that, but the hope is that the man feels my strength, faith, resolve, feels the pledge lodged close by my padlocked lockbox, and the man must have a handshake message in mind himself, ’cause there ain’t sign the first of him letting me loose. “You! You!” he says. “You serious or wasting my time? I’m gonna die. And you’re gonna die. And tell me who has a moment to waste?” He says this and hovers stock-still, not that big in life but bigger than life—exponential. He peers into me with eyes that could douse my greatest fear or immolate my fondest dreams, which is why right this second there’s a rock band rehearsing in my chest, a flood in my pits, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, I’m overcome with the urge to confess my life. To admit how it’s one thing to be an ex-con, but another thing entire to feel convicted. How every stint feels less of time away and more of time at home. How most days all I ever see are emblems of what I could’ve been.
Plus, here’s the stone-cold ignore-it-and-that’s-your-sweet-ass truth: Either I’ve had all I can stand or I’ll never, not this year, not this decade, not this eon, get enough.
But me, I don’t mention any of this. And why? What are you, a priest? Why my nuts! It’s nobody’s business why.
The room is swathed in jaundiced light and reeks of disinfectant that could knock you dead. For a time, every tiny breath, shift, murmur, creak, cough, sniff, could measure on Richter. Then it all softens to ambient noise, and Cap glides amid the pseudoquiet to a post in the center of it all. He grabs a branch of chalk and scrawls the word narrative on the board in leviathan script. “My friends, everyone has a sob story,” he says. “But guess what, no one gives a goddamn about your sob stories. What the world attends, if it attends at all, is who you are now, and what you do with the moment at hand.”
You don’t have to be no psychic to know the most jaded of us will, no matter the prodding, refuse to treat this man with the utmost gravitas—aka a silly mistake that most days I’d be content to sit and watch be pursued. But for only God-might-know why, I’m struck with the urge to warn this handful of screw-face ne’er-do-wells how we can never, ever be sure when we’ve laid eyes on the shepherd of our last—not penultimate or semifinal, but last, as in absolute—chance of saving our oversoul.