We reached our destination. Twin Towers Correctional Facility, downtown Los Angeles. County jail.
The bus was full of us, prisoners, chained in twos and threes. Petty thieves, parole violators, drunk drivers, wife beaters, gang bangers, a few genuine desperados. We shuffled off, awkward, stumbling. Three guards in perfectly pressed uniforms, wearing smokey bear hats, barked at us, growled, screamed, like Cerberus.
A relentless crash of stern commands. “Shoes off! Belts off! Names, motherfuckers, names!” Most of us knew, from experience or instinct to remain passive, take our medicine, we didn’t get here by accident. They could smell fear, we knew. But there were a few kids already scared out of their wits. Lousy poker faces, they tried to choke back tears and the guards pounced, got in their faces, whispered “Don’t worry, son, it only gets worse.”
The only things missing were cattle prods or whips as they scolded us into the bowels of the jail. Daylight turned to fluorescence, we lost all sense of time.
We waited, sat at wooden tables, waited, our ears still rang from the guards’ tongue lashings, we waited some more. Hours? The room reminded me of my elementary school cafeteria, generic, forgettable, maybe it was the smell, of things gone bad.
I didn’t know what we were waiting for. I hadn’t been here before. This was my first extended stay. Please, I begged the fates, be my last.
Turned out we were waiting for shoes. County issue slippers.
A box was thrown on the table.
“Do not! I repeat, do not tell us your shoes don’t fit! We don’t give a fuck! We’ll figure it out later!”
We helped ourselves.
The last man took the last pair, made a cross tsking noise. “Size sixes? What the fuck am I gonna do with sixes?”
The lead guard, all of five feet five inches tall, removed his billy club and SLAMMED it down on the table. “What the fuck did I just say?”
Some of the other prisoners cursed under their breaths.
The man with the size six slippers didn’t blink, or even acknowledge the guard. He was massive, six foot five I guessed, shaggy cornrows reached to the bottom of his neck. “Fucking things wouldn’t fit my hands.” And they wouldn’t. He held them up against his huge paws.
The guard turned crimson. He was barely even with the seated prisoner’s face. “Are we gonna have a fucking problem here?”
The prisoner smiled, brown eyes turned in whites the color of Elmer’s glue, as if only then noticing the pesky guard. “Shit, Napoleon. You need to get laid.”
The other guards corralled their laughter.
I couldn’t quite.
The guard turned on me. He looked Korean, a wide, flat face, big ovals for eyes, his dark hair cut close to the scalp.
“You laughing at me, asshole?”
“Hell no, officer.”
“Sounded like you was laughing.”
I shook my head. “I sneezed.”
“Bless you,” size sixes said.
I struggled to keep a straight face.
The guard’s veins were like tree roots in his neck. His uniform, already tight around his tiny but heavily muscled frame, looked ready to pop open. He picked up the size sixes, walked behind me, his breath escaped in angry wheezes. I knew it was coming. He cuffed me, sharply, in the back of the head with the hard soles of the slippers. Dropped them in my lap. Blood rushed to my face. I sucked my lips in. The guard picked up my slippers. Gave the other guy the same treatment. Under his cornrows, the prisoner’s eyes were razor slits.
We didn’t push our luck.
But I sensed, somehow, that if one of us had decided to mouth off, we would have had each other’s backs.
The guard let out a satisfied sigh. “This way scumbags. Follow the red line.”
We looked down and saw lines painted on the floor. Red, yellow, green, orange, blue. A filthy rainbow.
The red line took us to a long, narrow room with benches. There were other prisoners in front of us. The processing line. We were about to enter the system. The line stretched through rooms and corridors, more rooms.
I didn’t know how long I’d been here. A day?
“How those sixes working for y’all?”
We looked at my feet. My heels hung outside the slippers onto the floor. “Perfect.”
He chuckled. “Call me Snuff.”
“Brady,” I said. We shook, bumped fists.
“Don’t sweat it Brady Bunch. They give us new shoes after we shower.”
Snuff’s eyes narrowed. He looked at a man down the line a ways. “Do I know you, amigo?”
The man was Mexican and older than most of us. He had broad Indian features. It was not hard to picture him as an Aztec warrior or priest performing human sacrifices. His heavy-lidded eyes did not move.
“No.” His voice was deep, smoky. He could have made a fortune doing voice over work.
“You sure?” Snuff said. “Don’t you roll with those Thirteenth Street muchachos?”
The Aztec barely nodded.
“What they call you, hombre?”
The Mexican sighed, an impassive Sphynxlike expression on his face, “El Loco.”
“Yeah,” Snuff’s eyes were mean crescents. “El Locomotive. Yeah. I heard of you. You were in on that shit in Compton, what I heard.”
El Loco had no answer for that.
The line of prisoners slithered, painfully slow, through the caverns of the jail. Ahead of us an old man reeked like the end of the world, covered in his own vomit, sitting in soiled pants, he made us all feel better about ourselves, until we wondered if he used to look like us.
Then it was time for our close-ups. Face forward. Left profile. Right profile. Any tattoos? Any scars?
Snuff had gorgeous, violent tattoos etched up and down his chiseled arms, across his wide back. His torso looked like an ornate tombstone.
El Loco’s flesh was puckered with bullet holes. The tattoos of women painted across his body had been massacred. He moved, stiffly, displaying his story of hurt with lacerated exclamation points for the cameras.
Next, the showers. We took our clothes off, put them in a bag.
“Hey ladies,” a guard said, practiced, well rehearsed, “Might be a week before you see showers again. Don’t be shy with the soap.”
Three men to a shower head. The water so cold it stung. Our bodies, muscled, flabby, scarred, tattooed, read like hieroglyphics, like vibrant cave paintings. They were chronicles of pain. Taken individually they were poignant, together they were a moving canvas painted in blood. Crime stories written in ink that wouldn’t wash off. I wondered, not for the first time, not for the last, whose image we were made in.
Snuff eyed El Loco.
“Hey Locomotive, you got the wrong nickname. They should call you bullet holes.”
El Loco played deaf.
We dripped dry, shivering. They herded us five at a time to small holding cells, naked and cold, cramped, humiliated.
Me, Snuff, El Loco, a kid named Charlie and an older man named Parker were crowded onto two benches, not quite touching.
Charlie was crying.
“How old are you, Peckerwood?” Snuff said.
“What’d you do, boy?”
“What the fuck you doin’ time for?”
Charlie sighed with the regret of a much older man. “I was growing it in my house.”
Snuff nodded. “Ah. Drug factory.”
“Six months mandatory.”
“Right.” Charlie tried to swallow, but his throat wouldn’t cooperate. He made a pathetic sight, pale and chubby, just a light stubble on his upper lip was all he could muster.
“Charlie, my friend,” Snuff said, “you need to man up. We get to the day rooms, you need to get control or you get eaten alive.”
I had no idea what the day rooms were.
Parker must have been forty-five or fifty, long curly hair, long beard, going gray, fat and doughy. It was like seeing a young Santa Claus down on his luck. His eyes were pale blue, almost gray, wet with tears.
“I have spent almost half my life in places like this,” he said out of nowhere. “All because of drugs and alcohol. This is it. Never again.”
His turn to cry. His gut jiggled, like a bowlful of jelly. I did not want to become this man. Did not. Could not become this man.
His words were enough to keep the rest of us quiet until the door opened. We lined up to collect our county blues and some slippers that actually fit. Snuff’s eyes chuckled at me.
We became part of a larger group, “Follow the yellow line,” we were told. The yellow line took us to a dim chapel.
We each took a pew.
They fed us bologna sandwiches and milk or juice.
“Good night, outlaws,” a guard said as he turned the lights off.
It wasn’t so hard to sleep. I dreamed of my wife, two months pregnant. The only person who knew I was here. Paying my dues. Getting my shit together.
Every few hours they woke us, took attendance.
I went to take a piss. El Loco was shaving his head in the sink, smooth as a bullet.
When I got back to my pew, a guy sat next to me.
“Nice to see another familiar face,” he said. He meant white. We were the only ones out of about a hundred.
“How long you got?”
“Not sure. A few weeks?”
“Can you get a message to my girlfriend?”
He asked a guard for a pen and some paper, wrote down a number. A name above it, ‘Victoria.’
Her mother won’t let me talk to her. She throws my letters away. Just keep trying.” He handed me the piece of paper. “Tell her Johnny misses her. Tell her I love her. Tell her I’m sorry.”
Felt like I was trapped in a country western ballad. “How long you in for?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Need to talk to my lawyer.”
I felt bad for him. Mainly because I wasn’t planning on calling his girlfriend, if that’s what she was.
We were in that chapel for days. Instead of an altar, there was a big screen television. We watched movies, the news, football games.
Fights broke out. Over nothing. Our muscles ached with constant tension, our necks were sore from always looking over our shoulders. The church pews seemed to get smaller and harder each time we went to sleep.
Finally they moved some of us. To the day rooms.
There were no guards in the rooms. We were like bad kids who’d been sent to our rooms without supper. Rows and rows of bunk beds. As we entered the thirty foot by thirty foot room we were separated by race. I joined the ‘woods,’ short for ‘peckerwoods.’ El Loco joined the Mexican gangbangers, the ‘Southsiders.’ Snuff sauntered over and stood with the brothers. Beside El Loco, all the Mexicans, with their shaved heads looked like tattooed babies. They hushed as they realized who was joining their ranks. I could hear them say his name in awed whispers.
Snuff’s reputation preceded him as well.
“Snuffleupagus, sumuva bitch.” Hugs. Fist bumps. Snuff gave me a look. We wouldn’t be friends here. I nodded. I knew.
The senior ‘wood was a guy called ‘Chops.’ He advised me to sleep on top of anything I didn’t want stolen.
There were three payphones in the room. I could almost taste my wife’s voice, I craved it more than any drink or drug I’d ever tried. The line was long. I was used to lines by now, to waiting. After what felt like hours, the man ahead of me chatted on and on. “Who else is there? Let me talk to her.” He winked at me. I pictured his head smashing against the cement floor.
There was a barred window in the door to the room we were in. Through it we heard a prisoner singing “La Cucaracha.” Loud. He sounded drunk.
“Where the fuck are you going?” the guard on duty asked him.
“Where the fuck are you going, vendejo?” the prisoner said, way too loud and laughed, high-pitched and fast.
We all peaked through the bars. The prisoner’s uniform was green, he worked in the kitchen.
We winced as the guard smacked the back of the prisoners skull against a wall.
“Oh man,” one of the Southsiders mumbled. “They brewed some moonshine in the kitchen. Home boy is fucked.”
The guard cuffed the prisoner to our door, so he couldn’t quite sit down. He barely knew where he was. “Quit laughing at me, cabrones!” he shouted before he passed out, held up by his soon to be sore arm.
Finally I was on the phone.
El Loco was next to me, whispering Spanish in his resonant, ghostly voice.
Over his shoulder, Snuff crept closer, stalking. I looked to the Southsider bunks. They were, to a man, looking the other way, likewise the brothers and the ‘woods.
“Yes, I’ll accept the charges,” my wife said Her voice was a gale force breeze and my heart was a windmill.
“Hi, babe,” I said as Snuff’s monster obsidian hands closed around El Loco’s throat.
“Yeah, Bullet Holes,” Snuff whispered through clenched teeth, “One of your spic bullets found my brother down in Compton.”
El Loco’s eyes were ping-pong balls, bulging.
“So how is it?” she asked. “As bad as you thought?”
El Loco produced a shiv out of thin air. As long as a finger.
I don’t know why I did it. Grabbed El Loco’s wrist, held it tight. Felt the pulse surge in his arm, then slow as Snuff’s arms bulged and shivered and crushed the life out of this Aztec warrior. El Loco’s eyes and mine locked. A voice called, staccato, panicked, from the phone still clutched in El Loco’s hand. “Papa?” Over and over.
My wife was saying something, but blood pounded in my ears, made me deaf. She might as well have been on Mars.
Husband, father, grocer by day. At night, Mike writes dark, violent fiction. His stories can be found in the anthologies, Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT and Pulp Ink 2 as well as online in places like Spinetingler, Narrative, PANK, Pulp Metal Magazine, The Flash Fiction Offensive and Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices. His first novel is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.