A steel bench on an old prison bus, 400 miles of bone jarring in leg irons and chains. A couple of mystery meat sandwiches that had to go down with spit around an inescapable bouquet of exhaust fumes and dried piss.
I was sitting over a hole in the floor, a rusted out place right over the rear wheels. The piss smell was coming from behind the back seat where a big funnel was coathangered to the wall and through the floor, a set up with a margin of error that was based on the impossibility of a smooth ride.
For the umpteenth time I adjusted the metal rings around my limbs constantly shifting the pain from place to place. It had been a long ride up from the central prison in Raleigh North Carolina and just as the rickety old outhouse on wheels rounded the final curve around the mountain and our new residence came into view, the guy next to me elbowed me and said, "Well, there it is. The Yancey County Country Club."
He was of course merely masking the sudden onset of testicular atrophy. The Yancey County Camp had a reputation that did anything but lend itself to humor. The bloodhounds and double barreled shotgun-chain gang high in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was a hard labor hellhole where bloody ankles and keloid scars were as common as the cold beans and cornbread and where any complaint of either bought you 30 days of pureed sweetbreads in a dark and airless box the size of a household oven.
I swallowed around the dread in my throat, took in the pair of low altitude gun towers and singlewall of fencing and was already sizing up the place for a speedy departure. I was just starting a 12 year stretch for cheating a bank out of $20 grand. I had less than a year in the review mirror. The denial of my appeal had recently arrived in the mail with the Dear John from my girlfriend back in Atlanta and my first crack at parole was an easy five years in the distance. If there was a hole here I would find it.
On the other side of the usual processing my very transparent friend and I were delivered to our box in the camp's old brick cellhouse, an iron barred dormitory where 100 years of misery were hidden beneath 100 coats of paint and poorly erased filth. A dungeon-like paradise for all the shiny and furry critters of the night.
I found an empty bunk back by the potbellied stoves at the rear and killed my first cockroach and dropped my bed roll and was suddenly tapped on the shoulder by a guy I had met back at Central Prison during my time in pretrial detention, a Cherokee Indian from around Asheville doing life for emptying a .357 into a couple of drunks in a bar who had mistaken him for Geronimo.
Cherokee Claude was a large man with a ponytail and at least five teeth, maybe a couple more. His eyes were dark and dead as coal and his chest and arms were covered with the hieroglyphs of hard time. All in all, he was someone you knew immediately you never wanted to cross.
At 35 he had already spent half his life in prison. Now back with a life sentence, he had been there at Yancey County a little over a month. He was a chain smoker of Lucky Strikes and for tobacco money, he told me as I made my bunk, he ran a small canteen out of his locker. Coffee, cigarettes and chewing tobacco. Get it now and pay on Friday, right after the weekly pay call. No excuses.
Our conversation was brief and the truth was that was how we both wanted it. We were as different as Crazy Horse and Custer and it was clear to us both that we just weren't destined to be friends. But only in a cemetery are things carved in stone. The change came around a month later upon his receipt of a Bible from a man by the name of Billy Graham. He couldn't read or write and needed someone to read the accompanying letter and somehow that progressed to me teaching him to read and write and then eventually to the surfacing of the one thing we did have in common: a self-awarded time cut. And then right on cue it seemed, came the needed knock of opportunity.
On a sticky hot afternoon in mid-July as we were walking the rec yard and searching for the hole we knew was there, somewhere suddenly we were summoned to the sergeant's office for a "special assignment" outside the prison. At this news Claude showed me a rare jack-o'-lantern grin. My mind quickly flooded with images of tree limbs slapping me in the face, the bloodhounds baying in the distance, scenes from "Cool Hand Luke," the heart pounding run for our lives. Freedom!
In our wildly racing minds this "special assignment" concerned a couple of brushes and a bucket of paint. An unsightly clump of weeds in the warden's yard or the removal of some sort of roadkill, a poor dog or cat or rabbit that during the night had been a little too slow on its feet -- any of which would place us in the needed proximity to the nearby trees that would swallow us like a moonless night.
Well not quite.
A few minutes later we were standing knee-deep in an acre of shit, chained together inside the filtering field of the sewage treatment plant behind the prison, shoveling out the turd-clogged irrigators that, when working, reminded me of the big clay fountains outside a Mexican hacienda -- several loads of buckshot away from those oh so pretty trees.
With the first wheelbarrow full of shit and after attempting murder on the hundredth horsefly, I leaned on my shovel and wiped away the sweat, glanced around the tobacco chewing bubba with the double-barreled over his shoulder and told Claude we had the luck of a couple of runaway chickens taking a shortcut through Kentucky.
But Claude had lost the grin, he didn't laugh. With a cold and murderous look in his eyes he was even ignoring the flies.
Minutes later we heard the district outhouse on wheels rounding the curve with its weekly delivery. As it neared and we could see in past the barred-over windows. We counted the heads, the number of new arrivals. Together, we arrived at the number five. Then, still eyeing it as it slowed and rolled to a stop at the side gate, my big Indian friend aimed my eyes and said, "See that kid up front there with the yellow hair?"
I looked. I didn't know him. " What about him?"
He shot me a look suggesting the opposite of high regard for the kid, lit a fresh Lucky and put his eyes back on the bus.
"Name's Rocky. A little punk from around Charlotte," he said, "fancies the niggers, if you know what I mean."
I did. Translation: This Rocky kid was weak and would let the blacks fuck him in the ass.
We went back to our special assignment and as we did Claude told me more about the wrongly named kid. He knew him from one of the other prisons in the Western District, said he had a habit of separating himself from his debts and that besides "intercoursing with the niggers," he was known to overextend himself at the poker tables. "Right to the point where the niggers get tired of trading in protection and he has to run to the man."
"Files for bankruptcy," I put in, just being funny.
Claude still wasn't laughing, just went on, "They put him on the bus. Off to the next spot. He starts over fresh and clean like it ain't nothing."
Yancey County, it appeared, was the latest of his next spots.
Back in the cellblock as Claude and I headed for the showers we spotted the yellow haired kid with the most inapt of names already making the acquaintance of a former crack dealer named "Big Lou."
Claude and I looked at each other with shared disgust and kept moving. Amazing, the small value some men place on their manhood.
The next few weeks dragged on as Cherokee Claude and I explored and eliminated all the other possible ways out. The ground below was mostly granite, sawing through the bars in the cellblock windows for an after dark dive over the fence would involve too many witnesses, and anything concerning the fence in daylight would involve buckshot.
Eventually, we found ourselves discussing it less and returning to the teacher/student origins of our relationship. He soon mastered Genesis and managed a letter to Billy Graham. With the help of John LeCarre I made a temporary escape to Russia. It was around then that the same sergeant who had selected Claude and me for the special assignment decided I was reading too much and ought to be picking up cigarette butts and lots of chewing tobacco from the rec yard and delivering, by a crude pully system, meals and coffee to the guards in the low altitude towers.
At first I was cursing my luck. I had been hoping to get tossed onto one of the road crews that went out every morning to clear brush and pick up trash from roadsides around the county. A job with possibilities. And the idea of delivering fresh brewed coffee to keep alert the people who at some point might use me as a target was a bit like swallowing a softball that had just rolled through dog shit. But I swallowed it. Just in case there was some yet to be realized advantage down the road -- as Claude was suggesting.
Over the next few weeks as Cherokee Claude took refuge in his Bible and I traveled through the Baltic with beautiful women, it seemed we both had abandoned our earlier mindset and were settling for the imaginary. Summer gave way to the season of colorful leaves, then to no leaves at all and then suddenly one afternoon there it was: the answer! Right there on the pages of a spy novel, something called "Chloral Hydrate."
"Ain't never heard of it," Claude replied when I hurriedly pulled him out to the rec yard and we could talk. "What it do?"
I looked across the lumpy and dusty basketball court to the guard in the front tower, barely able to contain myself. He was sitting outside on the catwalk, leaned back in his chair with his feet on the railing like a hillbilly with a corn cob pipe, the scattergun across his lap. "It's a knockout drug," I said as we walked, still eyeing the guard, feeling like a slave who had just happened upon a saddled horse and a roadmap to the north. "It's tasteless, odorless and clear; you sprinkle a little in a drink and it knocks you out cold. They call it a Mickey Finn."
Now Claude was eyeing the tower, catching on. We made a few laps around the yard, mostly in mind-racing silence, navigating through the sea of ears. Each of us studied the pulley system to the tower, the single fence, the open staircase up to the hillbillies' low altitude perch. On every pass we could feel the eyes following us, their languid movement behind the mirrored lenses, surely wondering what Custer and Crazy Horse could be discussing.
Claude scratched his nose, covering his lips. "So you're saying we get a hold of some of this stuff. You slip it to him and he ain't gonna know nothing?"
"He won't have a clue," I assured him, "and better still, I know just where to get it."
"How long does it take to work?" Simple questions from a simple mind.
"No time. Minutes. I'll sprinkle a little in the coffee. He goes out and we're over the fence and up those steps like that." I snapped my fingers.
As we passed to the cellblock entrance for the third time he pulled out his pocket comb and went to run it through his long black hair quietly weighing the beyond. "We'll have to kill him," he said in a way that didn't invite debate. "That shit wears off too quick. We can't take that chance."
I let the insanity of his thinking hang in the air between us for a moment. Then instead of calling him a bloodthirsty idiot, I just pointed out the fact that the guard's truck was sitting there at the base of the steps. And that we could give him enough of the stuff to keep him out for hours.
"We kill him," I said, "and all that's going to do is make them hunt us even harder. And maybe even get us the gas chamber." I let that sink in, then told him, "All we got to do is cuff him and stick a sock in his mouth. By the time he comes to we'll be in Atlanta with a cold beer."
He liked his idea better. Naturally. But reluctantly he agreed it could be done my way as well.
So I went on, "In the book the guy got the stuff from a veterinarian. Hey, I know this girl. She's been working at a pet clinic for years. I'll get her to hide some in a pair of shoes. Hollow out a place in the sole. These idiots here won't suspect a thing."
He was grinning again. And with that it was settled. That night I sent a message to my friend inside a handmade birthday card. Then I phoned her a few days later with the code. Then I waited.
At mail call a week later I was handed a box with a pair of new Nikes. I had to really look close for the surgery. My friend had done a hell of a job.
For the next three nights Cherokee Claude and I experimented with dosage, taking turns. When finally we had it nailed, all that remained was picking a day.
"Tomorrow evening," Claude said, "right after the duty pay and I collect from everybody. That way we got a little over $100 for the ride."
24 hours later....
As always, the weekly pay was doled out on Friday right after the evening count. Everyone was paid for their various jobs on the road crews and those inside the fence and any money received through the mail. By five Claude had collected from almost everyone. I had the pill bottle of powder in my pocket and any time now the guards would be calling for their usual hot coffee and sandwiches.
I checked my watch. I looked out the window at the tower out front. The guard was out on the catwalk talking to someone on the rec yard. Normal.
Back near my bunk the poker players had set up a table and several were sitting down with cash in hand. A normal Friday night.
I turned away from the window, walked over to Claude's bunk where he was busy counting his receipts and asked him if he was ready.
He kept counting and didn't look up. It was a stupid question. We were both in adrenaline overdrive. I sat down on the bunk opposite him and checked my watch for the umpteenth time. I felt the pill bottle and was once again playing out the plan in my head.
My plan? The guard finishes his coffee and goes off to sleep. I climb over the fence, run up the steps and grab the guns, handcuff him to the railing and feed him a sock. Claude climbs over behind me and starts up the truck. 60 seconds later we're around the curve and gone from sight. Within an hour it will be dark and we'll be in Georgia and at the first opportunity I'll be wishing him the best of luck.
"$91 and change," he said, stuffing the bills into his socks. Then he was cutting his eyes around the cellblock placing the guards. There were only three on duty plus the two in the towers.
"They're still up in the kitchen," I told him, referring to the missing three. "They'll be up there stuffing their faces for another half hour. Pork chops."
"This is the perfect time," he said.
He was right. We had to wait for the call. Then calmly combing his mustache and thinking again like the cold-blooded killer he was, he added, "I still say we take him out. Slit his throat and be done with it. Maybe shove a broom up his ass."
I sucked in a ragged breath. I just hope the plan unfolded my way. No matter what, I knew I had to be the first one over the fence.
Then Claude was staring at something over my shoulder.
"What is it?" I followed his eyes.
He pointed with the comb and asked, "Ain't that Rocky back there in the poker game?"
It was. He kept staring for a moment and in his coal-colored eyes, the only window into the darkness, I could see something building. He was losing focus on the fence and finally he muttered what sounded like, "I told that punk not to fuck with my money."
I looked at the ceiling. I was a five year old trying to comprehend the cosmos. I said, "You mean after all you said about him you went and gave him credit?"
He stuck a Lucky in his mouth and kept staring. My answer.
Then after striking up a match he said to me, "Go back there and tell him to come here."
"Just let it go," I said, giving up on the mysteries of space. "We ain't got time for that. Whatever he owes, just forget it."
He heard me but he wasn't listening. The darkness had gathered.
"Go get him," he said again. And at that point I knew his small and menacing mind was made up. Better for me to go get the kid and let the big Indian punch him in the mouth a time or two. Just get it over with.
If only I had known.
Back at the poker table when I delivered the message Rocky looked up at me like I was something he'd scraped from his shoes and said, "Man, can't you see I'm in the game here? Tell him I'll catch him later."
I glanced back at Cherokee Claude. Those eyes. I snatched the cards from Rocky's hand then tossed them on the table and said to his astonishment, "You tell him."
Rocky knew Claude's reputation as well as Claude knew his. He knew he was a senseless killer, crazy as Manson. And still Rocky just wasn't grasping the gravity of the situation.
Back at Claude's bunk I resumed my place across from him and as he sat next to me Rocky was already saying, "Damn Claude. What you worried about? I know I owe you and I know it's Friday." He aimed his thumb at me and cried, "Fuck, he just threw away three kings! Just fuckin' relax, man. I'll get you before lights out."
Claude was rolling the Lucky between his crudely tattooed fingers, staring at the smoke as he said, "Rocky, you need to pay me my money right now."
The kid threw up his hands. "Claude, did you hear what I said?! I got you! I'm in the game. I'm going to take ’em for everything they got. I can feel it." He looked at me, his young blue eyes asking me to get Claude off his back, to give him a break.
I looked away. My answer.
Claude took a long pull on the cigarette made in my hometown of Durham, patted the bunk and told Rocky to come sit next to him as if he didn't care for the whole cellblock to hear their business.
Here it comes, I thought, and looked around for witnesses. The bloody lip.
Rocky hesitated. His instincts suddenly suggesting flight and he should have listened. Just that once.
With the yellow haired 19-year-old sitting next to him, Claude very calmly placed his left hand around the kid's shoulder and said to him, "Rocky, here's what's going to happen. You owe me $30, right?"
Rocky looked at the chips in his hand, fumbled with the words, "Claude, please. Just give me a couple hours. I promise --"
Claude had tightened his grip. He was pressing a finger to Rocky's lips as he said, "Rocky, listen to me." He indicated the aisle, the narrow space between the two bunks. "You can't leave here alive without paying me my money. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
I watched as Rocky's blue eyes filled with terror. Under the weight of Claude's large and muscled arm he was on the verge of hyperventilation and suddenly pleading with me for help — a $10 loan.
Regrettably, my exact words to them were, "What, so I can have the privilege of kicking your ass? No thanks. You're on your own."
Rocky started crying and looked away. Desperate.
I saw Claude's other hand disappear under his pillow and then Rocky was reaching for his watch, apparently about to offer it up as collateral. But before he had it unfastened from his wrist, he was choking on his blood. Striking like a cobra, Claude had filled his hand with a 6-inch buck knife and slammed it into Rocky's neck, severing the jugular.
I remember gasping as I saw the shiny blade slammed through flesh and bone like an arrow through an apple. Then feeling the warmth of Rocky's blood as it sprayed across my face and into my eyes, scrambling to get out of his way as he made a futile run for his life.
He made it to the center hallway, maybe 20 feet, and then he dropped. His poker chips scattered across the floor still spinning as he died. No one tried to save him. No one could. He bled out as quickly as a freshly slaughtered animal and by the time the guards got the news and quit the pork chops there was nothing left to do but determine the killer.
And that wasn't very difficult even for them. Immediately their eyes locked on the nearby row of wash basins. On the big Indian standing there rinsing a bloody knife like he was at a stream out on the plains, solemn after the kill. Like he just used it to skin an elk.