The Empty Bed In My Cell

art copyright© 2015 joeyfeldman, all rights reserved


By Marc D. Goldfinger

There’s a story everywhere we look.  Sometimes we don’t want to see the story, but we can’t help ourselves.  This is one of those times.

My mother and father moved to Florida in 1982.  I can remember it clearly because I was in prison during that year, and a bit longer, so I couldn’t help them move even if I wanted to.  As a matter of truth, because I was so messed up on black tar heroin when I wasn’t locked down, I can’t really say that I would have been much help to them anyway.

Before I was extradited to Massachusetts from Oregon, I remember asking my father to put the house up for collateral to get the $150K I needed to bail out.  I’m glad he didn’t do it.  Chances are pretty fair, scratch ticket odds if you know what I mean, that my parents would have lost the house.  The cops said I had a rabbit by my name.

Which was why, when I arrived in Mass and they placed me in the Worcester County House of Correction, they locked me down in maximum security.  In 1982 maxi-tier was pretty liberal.  Two men to a one man cell.  One bunk hanging on the wall, the other on the floor, with not even 12 inches between them to spare.  The mattress on the floor rested its base touching the metal toilet so the new man had the choice of head by the crapper or head by the bars and pray that no other con wanted something you had or just didn’t like you.  Sink above the toilet.

Really, they were luxury accomodations when you think that you only had to share your bathroom with one other person.  Unfortunately you had to live in the bathroom.  There were 52 bathrooms on maxi-tier, each one housing two men.  We were locked down 21and1/2 hours a day.  From 6:30pm to 9:00pm we were loosed upon the tier.  Savage animals with the weight of interminable hours caged fueling us like ebola virus unleashed, no quarantines to slow us down, our emotions lit the catwalk with fire.

The first time I heard the music was when the elevator hit the catwalk and the wheelchair rolled out with two guards flanking each wheel.  At first it was REO Speedwagon.  Later on, there was a different type of music.  But I’ll get to that later.

My eyes flitted around the tier and by the expression on the faces of the other cons I knew that I wasn’t the only one who heard music.  I’m not sure if we all heard the same song, but that’s how magic is.  Just like life itself.  If you don’t think things you can’t see affect us just watch everyone in today’s world running around holding cell phones to their ears.  They’re listening to something, don’t you just know it!  Even the radioactive sound of death speaks in the voice of those who are familiar to us.  But we’ll leave the present where it belongs, far in the future.  For now it’s back to the past, or what we thought was a safer present.

As different as we all are, that’s how many songs were playing on maximum security when the Troll hit the tier.  The guards reflected blank faces.  They weren’t aware of anything strange that morning.  Of course, the correctional officers in any prison are just like the husband or wife who’s being cheated on.  Always the last to know.  The cons say that a person has to fail an awareness test to become a correctional officer.  All I know is that it was obvious to me that they didn’t hear the music.

The man in the wheelchair at first appeared to be a grotesque caricature of a human.  His legs were shriveled appendages resembling gnarled branches drooping down from a barrel-trunked body.  He wore a biker vest and a shredded brown t-shirt.  Grey-haired arms that rippled with scarred bloodhoses some might call veins lay on the arm-rests of the old wooden chair.  When he clenched his brown-specked hands into fists his arms looked like twisted hemp and just as powerful.

The cops rolled him onto the tier like he couldn’t do it himself and just then he winked this demon eye where red blood rolled across the white of it like hell’s fire.  I thought he was signalling to me but when I scoped the other cons they were checking me out checking them out.

Just then he dropped his hands onto the wheels of his chair and it snapped to a stop.  Those cops lurched forward with their heavy bodies and almost crashed to the floor with the momentum but the chair didn’t move a millimeter.  The old gent in the chair curled one corner of his mouth down and the other corner up.  His lips parted with a guffaw that rocked the tier as the cops glared down at him.  Then he hawked a humungous green hunk of phlegm onto the shoe of the biggest uniformed monkey and the whole tier busted up with laughter.

This was my introduction to the man who called himself the Troll.

*   *   *

As luck might have it, on the night previous to the Troll’s arrival on maxi-tier, there was an incident that took place which made vacant the second bed in my one-man cell.  I didn’t think anything of it when it occurred but as I think back on it now, because of everything that later went down, it sends the spirit vibrating up and down my back.  Some say the feeling, like gentle lightning inside us, is caused by a person stepping on the place we will die.  Me, I think it has more to do with the eternal life of the big soul, like when it knows, ghost-deep, that certain things happen for a reason.

Carlos was a cat-burglar who never landed on his feet.  The reason he was in this time was for doing a pharmacy.  It was the perfect job.  In and out.  Supposedly.

This was before the time of vibration alarms, hook-ups directly to the cop-shops, and giant chain drug stores in the busiest place of the town.  Back then there was a proliferation of privately owned pharmacies, some of which were located on absurdly deserted sections of town called bedroom communities because everyone, by one in the morning, was asleep or trying desperately to watch television until the sleepers or the martinis kick in.

It was on just one of these corners, next to an Exxon gas station that was locked up tight, where Greco’s Pharmacy sat.  Carlos crept into the space between the drugstore and the gas station, hoisted himself up the drainpipe onto the roof, and then chopped his way down through the shingles and wood.

First he dropped his some of his tools in, leaving the saw and the small ax on the roof, and then he followed his crowbar and screwdrivers  into the hole, twisting his ankle on the freshly waxed linoleum floor because he was so excited that he had forgotten to hang-drop in and just leaped due to the fact that he was already preoccupied by the thought of the drugs that would soon bring his harried soul some rest.  The pain raced up his leg.

As he jimmied the narcotic cabinets for the morphine shakers and Dilaudid he cursed his luck.  Luckily he could just let himself out the door but he would have to lose the tools that he left on the roof.  As he thought about it, he couldn’t figure for the life of him why he didn’t drop all the tools down.  He shrugged.  The next time he did a smash and grab on a house he’d pick up new tools on the way out.

Carlos filled the carrying bags with everything he could.  Even though it wasn’t a shootable he grabbed two pint bottles of Tussionex Suspension and put them into the bag.  He loved that liquid gold because it lasted.  Time release.

His ankle threw sharp-edged stars of pain into his nerves as he hoisted the bags of drugs over his shoulder.  Carlos paused.

Why in hell should he suffer like this when he had all the painkillers he needed at his disposal.  He hefted the bags back down and threw the zipper on the case with the morphine shakers.  He pulled out a bottle of one-hundred, snapped the seal, emptied a few into his hand, stuffed the jar into his pocket and pulled a U-100 insulin syringe out of a package.

Carlos ducked into the bathroom.  He pulled the stopper out of the syringe and dropped three shakers in.  The pain tweaked his leg.  He hesitated a moment.  Then, without a second thought, he dug the brown bottle from his pocket, popped off the top, and spilled out two more tiny pills.

Now, with five of the pills in the plastic barrel of the syringe, five 30mg. tabs which he thought mistakenly were 15mg., he turned on the sink until the water ran hot.  He cupped a pool of water in his hand, stuck the point of the needle into it and pulled back on the stopper.

The barrel filled with hot water.  Carlos shook it briskly and the pills vanished.  The water looked clear.

In a hurry now, the pain seeming much worse than before, he slipped his belt from the loops on his trousers, wrapped it around his upper arm and then jerked it tight.  His veins rose and he pierced his skin with the point.

When he felt the pop of the needle tearing into his calloused vein he nudged the stopper back.  A thread of his blood looped into the syringe.

Without hesitation, without pausing to check the intensity of the rush, he slammed the stopper home.  All the liquid vanished into his arm.

*   *   *

When Mr. Greco walked into his store, the first thing that grabbed his attention was the hole in the roof.  The next thing he noticed was the broken doors on the drug cabinets.  He called the police.

When the police arrived they began to take an inventory of everything that was missing.  As they filled out the paperwork, Detective Fachet asked Mr. Greco where the bathroom was as he had one rip-snorter of a urinary tract infection and was going to the bathroom more than once an hour.

As he opened the bathroom door he thought he might ask the pharmacist what medication he could get and save a trip to the doctor.  In his haste he tripped and fell to the floor, almost wetting his pants in the process.  His face slapped into the face of Carlos, who lay on the floor unconscious with a pool of spittle dribbling over his chin.  Fachet leaped up in disgust, wiping saliva from the overdosed man off his own face.  Not knowing much about how the HIV virus was spread he hoped the pathetic junkie didn’t have AIDS.  As it turned out, Carlos was not infected.

Eight months later, when Carlos had served half his sentence for B & E in the night time, it didn’t matter whether he was infected or not.  The one fact that stands out in my mind was that Carlos really loved his wife.         He had just come back from a visit.  His wife had informed him that she was leaving him to move in with Chet Harpkin.  Harpkin was a good-looking guard who preyed on the lonely wives of the inmates.  She would be number three for the unscrupulous screw.  Number four was waiting in the wings.

When Carlos came in he told me he could do this time standing on his head.  He never figured on the loss of his wife.  There is a song about women leaving their men while they are in prison.  It goes like this: “Ain’t no use in writin’ home, Jody’s got your wife and gone; ain’t no use in feeling blue, Jody’s got your sister too;” etc., etc.  Only men in the prisons, the lockdowns, the chaingangs know the hard truth of this song.

He thought it could do it standing on his head.  He never knew that he was going to end it hanging dead by the neck with a pair of old dirty prison jeans cutting off his breath.

So I had an empty bed in my cell.  The next day, in came the Troll.  Come to find out, as things unfolded, he was always meant for that empty bed, and when he got there, he meant it to be his.

There was also the matter of the screw named Harpkin who was screwing around with us.  As events unfolded, and they do whether we want them to or not, more was revealed.  Carlos was the lucky one.  He was luckier than Harpkin, he was luckier than the hapless wives, he was even luckier than me.

It tires me out thinking of how strange things came to be.  Really, it’s years later and so many events have come to pass.  I’m a little overwhelmed.  I know I have to relate this story so it can be on record, so people understand what’s about to happen.

It’s the year 2000 now.  Everybody was expecting all these biblical prophecies to be fulfilled and we entered the new year without a glitch.  Even Y2K was nothing but a ripple on the road for all the chatter about it.

The thing is, it was all starting to happen and hardly anyone knew.  It was like the music that we all heard when the Troll first rolled onto the tier.  The guards were deaf to it.

In the end, it was all of us that couldn’t hear.  I’ll get back to you later.  I’m a little sick.  Time for a little Dead Man Walking.  The best junk around.  Killer.

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