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On Iceby David Ramus
Guilty. A tough word to get your tongue around. A bitter mouthful — hard to chew, harder to swallow. I choked on it the first time I heard it used in the same sentence as my name. And time, the one thing I had plenty of, didn't help. It never does in prison.
I'd been down for eighteen months. Eighteen endless months. Half of a thirty-six-month bit I never bargained for. Innocent? Who's not innocent in prison? You tell the judge it was all a terrible mistake, a mistake you deeply regret. Only she's heard it all before. You appeal to a higher court. Everyone appeals. But it's easier to win the lottery than have your case overturned. So you do the time, try your best not to let it do you. Some days it's easy. Other days it's hell. Either way, you just keep breathing. It passes. Slowly, but it passes.
The Bureau of Prisons had designated me to a minimum-security prison camp located in northern Alabama, an unfenced compound cut into the red clay foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The camp, set hard against the outer fences of a high-security Federal Correctional Institution, was crowded with the FCI's overflow. True, the worst of the violent offenders, the lifers, the serial killers and head cases were behind the guard towers and concertina wire. But any thoughts that I would do my time rubbing elbows with crooked politicians and bent businessmen went out the window the minute I entered the system.
Eight out of ten of my fellow inmates were drug dealers. Most of the rest were a mix of losers and sociopaths who'd done everything from robbing banks to peddling stolen military hardware. There were murderers and pimps. Gang enforcers lucky enough to have been popped carrying vials of rock instead of their Tec-9's and Mac 10's — the deadly tools of their calling. Tools they handled as skillfully as I handled a finish hammer or a miter saw. Like it or not, these were my neighbors. The men I bunked with. We shared a world of hard surfaces and bright fluorescent lights. A cloistered world where violence was a fact of life — barter the lubricant that kept the place from actually exploding. Even so, after a year and a half inside, I thought I had it wired — that all I had to do was lay low, let the days glide by until it was time to go home.
I was wrong. Nearly dead wrong, as it turned out. I didn't know about real trouble. Not yet. No, the real thing came calling the day Black was explaining the evils of pork. Only at first, I didn't recognize it for what it was.
It was mild that day. The long summer had been wetter than normal. Curtains of rain graying the green humps of the mountains surrounding us — cooling the air and dampening tempers. I didn't complain. When men are crowded into small spaces and there's nowhere to go — no break from the constant friction of strangers rubbing up against each other, the noise, the taste and stink of male sweat, fear, anger, and desperation — it doesn't take much more than a heat wave to set things off. Nothing much had happened lately. But you learn to watch for trouble the way the weatherman on channel 5 watches the Doppler radar scope for tornadoes. That screen lights up, you take cover. Not that I didn't know how to handle myself. You don't bounce around the construction trades for the better part of two decades without learning the hard way that there are times when words just won't get the job done. I knew how to use my fists. But by the ripe old age of thirty-eight, I also should have known enough not to throw my cards on the table without a goddamned good reason. Especially in here.
We were on the rec yard, watching 1-dorm play 3-dorm a half-assed game of softball. Black, my celly, one of the most graceful athletes I'd ever seen, was sitting this one out. Something about the lack of decent pitching — that hitting the crank chemist 3-dorm had put on the mound was too easy to be any fun. A group of us were lounging on the aluminum bleachers between third base and home plate, shirts off, enjoying the gentle Alabama breeze. "It'll kill you," Black was saying. "Pork ain't nothin' but fat and cholesterol. Don't believe me; look at Truck. The man's a walkin', talkin' disaster."
"You hear that, Truck?" Reggie Everett asked. Reggie was like that. An old ponytailed hippie, always seeking the alternative point of view. "The man says you eat too much pork. That true?"
Tony "Tow Truck" Tucker shook his big head and watched the catcher from 1-dorm hit a looping pop-up to short right. "Ain't but one problem with pork," Truck said after the second baseman made the easy out.
"What's that?" Reggie asked.
"Only thing wrong with a pig is it don't get as big as a cow," Truck declared, to Reggie's delight.
Black snorted. "You big as a cow, Truck."
Truck nodded thoughtfully and slapped his ample belly. "More like a bull. Grade A prime black stud. Make them country girls cry for joy."
"What do you think, Ben?" Reggie asked me.
Truck interrupted. "Hemmings's married — he don't know shit about country girls. He the strong, silent type — might be he used to know how to live rough, but he a family man now. Wouldn't know what to do with a big ol' wild country booty it smacked him right in the face."
I looked at Truck — all three hundred fiftyplus pounds of him. "Take a damned big booty to smack you in the face."
"Shit! You talkin' like every other skinny white man I know." Truck slapped his belly again. "This right here is a sign of intelligence."
"Intelligence, my ass," Black shot back. "It's the pork, man. You eat the pig, you become the pig."
It went on like this for a while. Easy banter. No one taking anyone else seriously. The afternoon sliding by — soft time. Until an angry buzz started over by the handball courts. Then, the muttering ceased as quickly as it had started. The softball game stopped. So did the rhythmic clank of steel plates coming from the weight pile.
Suddenly the yard was quiet. Dangerously quiet.
"Trouble," Black said, turning his head as though he were sniffing the air to find the source. "Hinchee's on duty, isn't he?"
I nodded. "Saw him earlier. By the weight pile."
"Well, he on the handball court now," Truck said. "Gonna go see what's up." He hopped off the bleachers, surprisingly agile for a man his size.
I stood, too.
Black, having done hard time in three different FCIs, knew better. He shot me a warning look, but I was curious. So I left him sitting on the bleachers and followed Truck.
A silent crowd had gathered on the cracked cement court. In the center of a knot of grim-faced inmates, Corrections Officer Billy Hinchee, a soft-looking hack with a crew cut and a nasty sadistic streak, brandished an aluminum softball bat at Sally. "Fucking mutt bares its teeth at me again, I'm gonna kill it." He waggled the bat. "I'll fucking launch brain matter."
Hinchee's partner, a mellow, older hack named Peterson, stood outside the circle of men, radio in hand, a disgusted look on his face. He might not have liked what Hinchee was doing, but he was trained to back his partner no matter what. If this turned any uglier, it was a good bet he'd call in the SORT goons, a bunch of riot-geared, ready-response hacks who wade into any situation swinging lead-weighted batons. Covered from head to toe in body armor, they hit hard and ask questions later. In prison, there's no such thing as an innocent bystander.
But Sally, a brown-and-white puppy that had somehow found her way onto the compound, didn't know any of this. She shook herself and pranced around on her toes, growling. Maybe she thought it was all a game.
Hinchee didn't look amused. He cocked the bat and swung with all his might.
Sally dodged the blow and barked excitedly. Now the game was getting good. Someone shouted, "I'll take the dog. Ten to one on the mutt."
Someone else laughed.
The taunts egged Hinchee on. Any chance of his backing down disappeared. He had blood in his eye. A little big man, as long as he wore the uniform.
A nervous ripple went through the crowd, the circle of men a living ring, moving and flowing around Hinchee as he wagged the bat at the young dog, who hadn't the sense to get the hell out of there.
For that matter, neither did I.
The puppy, not the first stray to wander onto the compound, had been adopted by Dr. Dave, Rollie Shore's bodyguard and enforcer. I wondered if Hinchee knew. Dr. Dave, once a club fighter, boxing heavyweight out of New Orleans, wasn't a man to fuck with. Despite his nickname, he wasn't a healer. He hadn't earned the name setting bones — he'd earned it breaking them. I'd heard that he toughened his knuckles by punching the concrete wall of his cell a hundred times each day before breakfast — that he once hammered a three-inch nail into a two-by-four with the heel of his hand just to settle a bet. He did his time on the weight pile, training obsessively — his goal to compete as a bodybuilder if and when he ever got out.
But as tough as Dr. Dave's reputation was, it was his association with Rollie Shore that scared even the hardest cons.
No one, not even the hacks, messed with Rollie Shore.
Sally wasn't much of a dog, but Dr. Dave had taken to her. He brought her scraps of food from the chow hall, brushed her coat, spent hours trying to teach her to shake hands and roll over. He showed the little stray more tenderness than he had probably ever shown another human being in his entire sad and brutal life. And now Hinchee was doing his best to brain her. He swung again. And again Sally dodged the bat.
My stomach clenched, but there was nothing I could do to stop this spectacle. It could turn out only one way, but not a man in the crowd moved to end it. You could feel the intensity of their hatred, but you don't mess with the hacks. Not unless you're willing to pay the price. A big goddamned price. I wasn't. I wanted to go home — wanted to try and salvage what was left of my marriage. I wanted to be with my daughters. Messing with Hinchee wasn't going to get me closer to home. What it would get me was another charge. More time. Time I couldn't afford. So I stood there like everyone else and swallowed the bitter taste of bile flooding the back of my throat. Helpless, but unable to tear myself away. Silently rooting for the dog, but unwilling to put my ass on the line. Hinchee's cheeks flushed as he swung and missed a third time.
A voice in my head was screaming, Do something! But I pushed the thought away. Making a move would destroy whatever small chance I had to patch things up with Dana. And that was more important to me than a skinny little dog. But for reasons I couldn't explain, the thought shamed me.
The man on my left grunted, and for a second, I thought he could read my mind. Then I realized it was Dr. Dave.
He had a wedge-shaped head that looked as hard as granite and long curly hair, so blond it appeared white in the afternoon light. I stand six-two, but Dr. Dave had a good three inches on me. He was shirtless, sweating — narrowed muddy eyes the color of creek water, nostrils flared. Crude snake tattoos twined around both of his thick forearms. A vein bulged at his temple, pulsing with every beat of his heart. He held a twenty-five-pound iron plate clutched in his right hand — murder written across the set of his broad shoulders. If Dr. Dave swung that plate at Hinchee, he'd kill the fat little hack. And I didn't doubt that was exactly what was on his mind.
Part of me wanted to see it happen.
Others in the crowd noticed, too.
A corridor in front of Dr. Dave opened, but Hinchee was too fixated on Sally to see it.
Peterson didn't notice, either.
Hinchee turned his back on the dog. Then, quicker than I would have thought he could move, he pivoted and swung again. This time he caught Sally with a glancing blow to her rump. She backed away, wailing like a baby.
Dr. Dave tensed. He took a step forward.
"Don't," I whispered. "They'll fry you."
If he heard, he ignored me.
Hinchee raised the bat; this time he couldn't miss. But before he could bring it down, Dr. Dave bellowed and lurched toward him, the iron plate held high in his own hand.
Hinchee turned, a horrified look on his doughy face.
Peterson saw. But it was too late. He lifted the radio.
And without thinking, I moved, too. Kicking out with my right foot, I tripped Dr. Dave from behind, dropping him to the ground.
He hit the concrete hard and lay there for a second, stunned. Then he shook his head to clear it and started back up.
"Stay down!" I shouted. But he kept coming, his eyes crazy, the cords in his neck strung as tight as fence wire.
By then, Peterson had grabbed Hinchee and the two of them were moving away from the broken circle of men, Hinchee still clutching the softball bat, Peterson shouting into his radio.
Sally forgotten, Dr. Dave balled his heavy fists and started toward me.
I stood my ground.
A new circle formed around us. My mouth was dry, my heart slamming the walls of my chest. But backing down would only make things worse.
Dr. Dave feinted to his left. I refused the bait.
Someone shouted, "Kill the bastard!"
I was wondering which bastard, when Sally, limping on three legs, came between us and started to whine.
Dr. Dave hesitated. Then he dropped his fists.
"Later, Hemmings," he growled, bending to scoop up the injured puppy.
Then Black had me by the arm. "You gone crazy?" he shouted, pulling me back toward 1-dorm. "What the fuck were you thinking?"
Copyright © 2000 by Live Cover, Ltd.
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