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Authors: Stephen Solomita


BOOK: Keeplock
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A Novel of Crime
Stephen Solomita writing as David Cray










































the required tattoo—the one that says
—and I’ve been in and out of the required institutions since I was nine years old, the simple truth is that I’ve lost my nerve and I can’t go back. The tattoo was applied with India ink and the sharpened tine of a dining hall fork. I was in the baby jail on Rikers Island at the time, trying so hard to impress the few white boys in my housing area, that I believed my own advertising.

That’s the trick, of course. If you mean to survive in the Institution without giving up your soul, you have to believe that you’re ready to kill at any moment. The myth goes like this—if the other cons think I’m willing to kill (or die) for what’s mine, they’ll leave me alone. If they think I’m soft, they’ll suck out the last drop of my blood. All prisoners subscribe to this myth, even the ones who give up that last drop. Even the snitches.

It makes perfect sense, when you think about it. With no money, no friends on the outside, no one coming to visit, now or ever, what else have we got except the belief that there’s some value in never taking a backward step?

I was in my cell. Eight days before I was scheduled to go out on parole. The cell block was in a lockdown because a Rican he-she named Angel had shanked his husband, Pito, with a filed-down plastic toothbrush. It wasn’t much of a cut and rumor had it the two would make up as soon as the hacks let Angel out of the box. Meanwhile, it was every con in his cell while the Squad went through the usual bullshit shakedown. As if they didn’t know we’d dumped our weapons and our contraband as soon as Pito began to yell.

The Squad came onto the block about ten minutes after the stabbing. They wore black padded vests and black helmets with plastic face shields—a platoon of Darth Vaders accountable only to the warden. In the minds of the corrections officers, fear of the Squad was all that stood between them and the convicts.

But on this particular day the Squad seemed as bored as we were. Angel and Pito had been removed by the time they came pounding onto the block and the cons had gone back into their cells without being ordered. Still, the Squad went by the book. They called us out, one at a time, for questioning, while the corrections officer in charge of our block tossed the cells, scattering our possessions.

“I didn’t see nothin’, boss. I was in my cell when it happened.” No expression of concern on my face, though I could end up in the infirmary for a cocky smile imagined by a paranoid CO.

A deputy warden named Maason wrote down every word I said, nodding as he went along. Everybody knew that Pito loved to kick his sissy’s ass. The stabbing was Angel’s way of telling Pito where the line was—part of a prison ritual so boring it made time into God. Angel wasn’t trying to kill Pito. If Pito died, Angel would have to find someone just like him. That or become a prison whore, which in the age of AIDS means certain death.

The dep grunted and sent me back to my home—a one-man cell on the only block in the Cortlandt Correctional Facility that wasn’t given over to housing areas twice the size of basketball courts. It took me five years to get that cell. I put myself on a waiting list when I came through the gates and paid ten cartons of Kools to the posse who controlled the block when my turn came up. Of course, I could have bought a cell at any time, but the going price for new fish was a thousand dollars cash. Which is why my neighbors were wise guys or big-time Colombian dealers like Pito or embezzlers with enough brains not to show fear.

The Squad left after the dep finished his investigation, but the lock-down would continue through the night. Baloney sandwiches in the cell, no gym, no yard. In a Max A institution like Cortlandt, withdrawal of privileges was a routine punishment, even for those who hadn’t participated in the infraction.

In the army, when you take a break, the sergeant says, “Smoke ’em if you got ’em,” meaning cigarettes. In the joint, when you’re stuck in your cell, the rule goes like this: if you got it, then smoke it, shoot it, eat it, or stick it up your ass in the form of a suppository.

“Hey, Frangello?” It was Joe Terrentini, my neighbor. “Do yiz got anything?”

“Speed,” I said. “I got two reds.”

“Could I buy one from yiz?”

Half an hour later, time became bearable. Cells like mine had many advantages over the crowded dormitory blocks, the most obvious being safety. I was stoned past the point of boredom, crazily rapping with Joe Terrentini about Angel’s declaration of independence. Terrentini hated homosexuals. He’d been in the garbage business until the Organized Crime Task Force nailed him for hauling bodies off to the dump.

“The fuckin’ faggot got his fuckin’ just deserts. He got just what the fuck he deserved.” Terrentini had a strong tendency to repeat himself even when he was straight. Zipping along on speed, he would have talked to his toilet if I hadn’t been there.

I asked him who he meant—Angel, who was in the hole, or Pito, who was being sewn up in the hospital.

“Both them fags are fags, right?”

I couldn’t see his face, just his short, hairy forearms and folded hands extending through the bars of his cell. Terrentini was a slow man. He believed in every aspect of the American Dream except the one that says you can’t bury people in garbage dumps.

“Pito says that when he gets out of prison, he’ll never look at another man, but he’s gotta have sex and he doesn’t wanna hump his hand. He says what he does with Angel doesn’t make him a homosexual.”

Every butch con makes the same declaration, including wolves who call themselves gay in order to be placed on E3, the homosexual housing area.

“He fucks boys, Frangello,” Terrentini said flatly. “He’s a fuckin’ fag.”

Terrentini only spoke to me when he was speeding—the rest of the time he felt he was above me. I was a common criminal, he once told me, and he was a businessman. Whereas I hadn’t seen my wife or kids in years, he had a family, went to Mass every Sunday, and was connected to the mob by blood.

“Ya know what is ya problem, Frangello?” he asked. “Yiz don’t have values.” His finger flicked toward a porter moving down the catwalk. “Ya just like that fuckin’ yam with the bucket. Can youze see what I’m sayin’? That nigger’s been here thirty-five years. He’s gonna die here. Ya let that moulie out tomorra, he’d be poundin’ on the gate to get back in. That’s you in thirty years, cuz. Because yiz don’t have values.”

The trusty was even with Terrentini’s cell before I realized that something was wrong. Then the alarms went off hard enough to wake the dead. The porter wasn’t cleaning. He was pushing a bucket on wheels along the catwalk’s outer railing and he didn’t have a mop.

“Can youze see this fuckin’ nigger is so stoned, he can’t hardly stand up?” Terrentini said calmly. He’d been paying the hardest crew in Cortlandt to watch his back from day one and he probably thought he was untouchable. “That’s you. All ya fuckin’ life waitin’ for the next fix. This wouldn’t be the case if yiz had proper values.”

The porter bent down, picked up the bucket, then stumbled toward Terrentini’s cell. The biting odor of turpentine filled the air as he slammed the bucket against the bars.

“Whatta yiz doon?”

The porter flipped open the top of a Zippo lighter and spun the wheel against the flint.

“Whatta yiz doon?”

Terrentini’s cell exploded. The porter stumbled away, one trouser leg on fire. There weren’t any screams at first, but I could hear the fat beneath Terrentini’s skin as it bubbled and cracked. Then he began to run from wall to wall, crashing into the steel. I watched his reflection in the smoked glass window on the other side of the catwalk. I watched until the C.O.’s came, then I turned back to my own business.

In their haste, the C.O.’s had forgotten to throw the switch that opened Terrentini’s cell door and one of them ran back to the control room while the other tried to spray Terrentini with an extinguisher that wouldn’t work. When the cell door opened and Terrentini, still in flames, ran out, the C.O. jumped backwards. He had no intention of getting himself burned in order to save a convict. Then the second C.O. appeared with a charged foam extinguisher and put out the fire. Terrentini screamed when the foam hit him. A long, high sound that didn’t waver. It went on and on and on, then shut off forever.

The porter, a lifer named Bo Williams, was caught immediately. He’d fallen down trying to smother the flames on his trouser cuff and couldn’t get back up. Four hours later, when he came off the prison hooch and the pharmaceutical quaaludes, he turned snitch.

A friendly C.O. named Bugavic brought me the news after the ten o’clock count. He told me that I’d been the target. Bo Williams had been sent to kill me by a con named Franklyn Peshawar. Peshawar had threatened the old man, even as he pushed the hooch and the pills down Williams’s throat. Old men are legitimate prey in the joint and Peshawar had made Williams fear him more than he feared the administration.

It was a good plan. As an administrative porter, Williams had access to the block. He had what the lawyers like to call “opportunity.” But Williams had been drinking prison hooch for several decades and most of his circuits had popped long ago. Further numbed by Peshawar’s drugs, he’d made a simple mistake and burned the wrong man.

About an hour later, I asked Bugavic for protective custody. He got permission within minutes. The administration was only too happy to discover that I wasn’t planning revenge. Feuds are a headache to administrators under pressure to keep incidents of violence down. The politicians don’t care what happens to prisoners, but the reporters do.

The fear began to control me as soon as the C.O. locked me into a protective custody cell. I felt it stirring like a sudden return to a childhood when I was always frightened. In order to fight, I forced myself to consider Peshawar’s motives. Examining problems was one of the ways I overcame fear. After all, facing enemies instead of running away is what
is all about.

About two months before Terrentini was burned, Franklyn Peshawar had come up to me in the dining hall and pointed at my pork chop. To my knowledge, it was the only time I’d ever been near him.

BOOK: Keeplock
6.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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