Thank God Danny was here to give me the rundown on the rules governing the bathroom. Since we only have five commodes here, there are two designated “pissers” and two designated “shitters.” It is a real no-no to piss in a shitter or vice-versa. The fifth one is an emergency back-up if two of the sit-down commodes are in already in use, but you try to avoid that. Of course, all of this concern for hygiene doesn’t translate to anyone wanting to actually clean the bathrooms, so they bribe volunteers by giving them control over the TV. In fact, you can always tell that some kind of playoff game is going to be on when the straight guys are suspiciously willing to grab a mop in the morning.
Although this is worlds better than Sycamore, the dorm format makes it much harder to avoid the assholes, who, being assholes, have no idea they are assholes. I pretty much put up with their attempts to socialize, as I’ve learned by now that you never know when you might end up needing an unexpected ally. But after five minutes of the most inane conversation, I’ll gamely point out that I need to finish the letter I’m writing to get it in the day’s mail, to which they inevitably respond: “But dude, you’re always writing letters!”
We don’t have library privileges here, but there are twenty-some paperbacks floating around and I got my hands on Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear. I completely missed it back in the seventies, but am glad I did so that I could enjoy it fresh now. She’s such a good storyteller, and I’ve already spent hours submerging myself in the pre-historic world she creates. I also have my eye on a thick Pat Conroy I spotted, but the guy who’s reading it wants three soups to hand it over when he’s finished. Considering that these books belong to the whole dorm, I just frowned and walked away.
My bunkie’s name is Dick. He’s 58, a former investment banker and the father of three grown kids. He’s diabetic and suffers from poor circulation in his legs. Although he’s not gay, every night he “hires” one of the boys who doesn’t have money on his books to massage his feet. He works in the kitchen, and mostly pays them in food he smuggles out. (Because of his age, I think he’ll do most of his time here, which is why he has a job.)
Birch is a place for prisoners who would be in danger elsewhere, including informants. For this reason, people tend to shade the stories of how they got here even more than usual – just in case you’re a plant. That’s why I’m not entirely sure of the veracity of Dick’s story. It feels a bit like an account he learned to retell exactly the same way to a judge and a jury as part of a very specific legal strategy.
The short version: there was a company picnic, a softball game, and too much beer consumed. One of Dick’s sons got into a fight over a bad call, and an alarmed Dick swung a baseball bat at the aggressor, intending to hit him in the leg. However, due to a terrible case of momentary lost footing, the bat slammed into the side of the victim’s head.
Dick, horrified, called an ambulance; then fled the state to a second home, anxiously waiting to find out if he’d killed the guy. Thank God, the brain swelling went down and the poor man recovered. Dick returned from Arizona and turned himself in. He negotiated his way to a five-year sentence – aggravated assault and battery – but he’ll have to serve 80% of it.
It doesn’t seem like he could be lying about something that that so many people witnessed, but my gut tells me that he’s actually taking the fall for one of his sons, who sounds like a hotheaded alcoholic always getting into trouble. And of course Dick feels worst of all of for his wife, who was looking forward to a plush retirement and suddenly has to come visit her husband behind bars.
After he told me the story, everything I thought to say seemed like a hopelessly leaden platitude. Dick, however, knew exactly what to say, and I realized it would apply whether he had almost killed a man or actually taken the blame for a son who had.
“The moral of the story, my friend, is that your life can totally change in a split-second.” He snapped his fingers. “Like that.”
The truth of his words lay there like an 800-pound dead gorilla, and it felt like we were both about to descend into a suicidal depression. I decided to lighten things up.
“You know what’s worse, Dick? Sometimes things can change gradually, over a 10-to-15 year period.”
For the longest second, I thought I’d completely overthought a punch-line, but then he got it and let out a deep, booming laugh that literally shook the room.