Words of Worth

By Tom Foster

 

            In the end, most folks want to say something.  They want to at least give some accounting of their lives, maybe just to be able to say that they were here, or that they’re sorry for this or that.  And I’m sure most do, but the demented and sometimes damned and doomed, the double-d’s as some of the guards have taken to calling them, don’t say a word.  It’s not like you see in the movies, where the hardened killer suddenly turns into a spineless jellyfish or a little girl, squealing to anyone who’ll listen that they’re sorry, they want to take it back, they want to be forgiven for their sins.  They don’t repent of their evil ways in a revealing and ultimately selfish manner, they don’t waste their last breaths on heartfelt emotion that most likely won’t be felt by others.

            The men I deal with are animals, the worst sort.  They’ve killed, raped, molested, and even worse, but I won’t go into the more lurid details. I’m sure your mind can fill in those horrid little gaps that Hollywood often deems so entertaining.

            In any case, these men stopped caring about the world some time ago.  Yet for some reason, part of the world still cares about them.  Part of it concerns our government and the differing views on capital punishment that vary from state to state.  Some say yes, some say no, and the others have their tongues tied in knots because they can’t make up their damned minds.  That’s where the plot thickens and twists to such a degree that no one can figure out any longer what really matters.  Some believe that these amoral killers and predators deserve a chance to change.  I wonder if, given a chance to live among those they’re trying to “save”, such folks would still hold firm to their beliefs.  Somehow I sincerely doubt that would be the case for long. 

            These monsters are good actors at times, but even they know that when their time is up, there’s no negotiating with the executioner. And the governors?  Pssh, might as well ask for a reprieve from rain in the Amazon. 

            I’ve observed these types of men for nearly three decades now, two as a guard and one as a warden.  I can with all honesty and accuracy tell anyone in all honesty, they will not change.  Those sent to death row are placed there for reasons that hopefully most folks will never hear of, and as such are beyond reprieve.   And yet, somehow, for some damned reason that no one can explain, people have enough imagination to think that a man facing death will have a sudden need to justify himself, that he’ll apologize for what he did, like it’s going to make it all better.  There’s no use praying at that moment, nor even begging those who are there to watch him die.  They know where they’re heading once the lights go out, and they all know there’s no bargaining once the devil’s got that pitchfork in your ass.  Just like I know now.

            This might be my last will and testament to a life that went off the rails at just the wrong point, but in truth the word you read here will be the only real words of worth I feel the necessity to convey any longer.  I know what I did, I know what I had, and I know what I did to get to this point.  At one point my life was great, I had everything I could ask for and didn’t want for a single thing. My family was taken care of, and thankfully all but a few of them had gotten off to the fast track in being successful. But there’s always those select few in the family who don’t seem able to let others enjoy their lives. Those pitiful assholes always seem poised to drag down anyone that even wanders in their direction, and my family is no different.

            Had I been smarter about it, those festering bitches wouldn’t have affected me in this

way. But if you’re reading this then you already know I didn’t manage to rein in my more

aggressive tendencies.  If you’ve got the stones then keep reading, otherwise I’ll tell you now,

put it down.  Still here?  Alright then, you were warned.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

February 18th, 2011

Oregon State Penitentiary

 

            Chains rattled and loose fittings squeaked and squalled as the rocking motion of the bus forced them in and out of true.

            “I heard about you esse.”

            He didn’t bother turning around. Taking issue with someone while incarcerated, even on a prison bus, could be an extreme health hazard. Screwing around with someone that might have ties to any one of the Hispanic gangs could be a death sentence.  There was no way to tell without looking if the vato behind him was hooked up or not, but judging by the loose way he spoke and the fact that he’d said anything to begin with, it was a reasonable assumption.  No one spoke to anyone without a good reason.

            “Yeah man, I heard you was a guard or some shit, you know?  I heard you was guard up at the pen.  You worked on death row right?”

            Still he said nothing, and he could already feel that deadly shift between indifference and insult.  Say nothing for a short time and you might be safe, but continue to say nothing and the wrong person might start to take offense. In prison it took very little to offend anyone. When you had almost nothing you fought for everything, even if it was just a snippet of conversation.

            “Hey man, you deaf or something?”

            Still no answer.  That shift was growing stronger. He could almost feel the emotional needle settling into the red.  Talking now would only complicate things, but not talking would continue to let that pressure keep building. 

            “Inmate, quiet down back there.” The rough, stern voice of the guard in the front of the bus carried back to them as he kept his eyes lowered. Apart from a few new guards at the penitentiary Lorne knew just about every one of them on a first name basis. Hell he’d had a good many of them over to his home for dinner, parties, even Super Bowl get-togethers.  He’d watched their kids grow up with his own, shared genuine moments with many of them, and counted all of them as good friends, or at least acquaintances in some cases.  They all knew he was coming here, and most of them still looked at him in the same light, but with that measure of uncertainty in their eyes that he knew he wouldn’t shake.

            “I’ll catch you on the fly man,” the vato said, leaning back as he offered on last parting shot, “You best watch your back, cop.”

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            He didn’t deny what he’d done, nor would he ever deny that it had felt good at the moment.  But coming to a place like this and being known for what he was carried certain risks. Tack on to that the reality that news traveled quickly in a prison and his risk became even greater as the other inmates discovered what he was really in for.  He’d killed a woman after all, a woman who’d been a mother and a grandmother, and at one time his closest cousin.  He couldn’t rightfully say that he’d lost all control, he could recall what he’d done, why he’d done it, and the feeling that had come after. It hadn’t been regret, not for the first few hours. It had been satisfaction.

            Sick as it was he’d been satisfied that he’d done it.  There were many emotions that he

could have professed to feeling in those first few hours, but regret had not been among them. Sorrow had been a part of it. He’d loved his cousin dearly from the time they’d been very young, but she had become so crazed by the end that he hadn’t seen any other way out.  She had gone after his family more than once in many different ways, and he had warned her more than once to stay away.  Some might have called it an act of defense, but the legal system had decided to call it first degree murder.

            When the cell door clanged shut behind him, it was more than evident that the jury, supposedly of his peers, had made the best decision.  A part of him had wanted to spit at them and ask how dare they call themselves his peers. They hadn’t gone through what he had, they hadn’t been around the type of scum he had for so long, and they certainly hadn’t had a family member go off the rails and try to murder their children.  Well, maybe some of them had, but that wasn’t the point.

            “Hey, is this him?”

            The cell door was locked, but he knew very well that didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. All it took was a small bribe and a guard willing to look away for a few seconds to seal someone’s fate.  The vato’s at his cell door knew that.  He could almost believe that he’d seen two out of the four individuals before, but he couldn’t be certain. After all, he’d been one of the guards on the end of the line, not one of the unlucky bastards in gen pop.

            “Yeah man, that’s the puta that thinks he’s hot shit, the cop.”

            “He’s a cop?” asked one of them, a heavyset bruiser that couldn’t have stood more than five and a half feet tall. Looking up just enough to see that each one of the quartet had their hands cupped over something as of yet to be seen, he knew he was in trouble. What came next would depend largely on the prep time he’d already put in upon entering his cell and his reaction time, which had slowed in the past ten years of working in this hellhole. He knew how to subdue a prisoner, now he had to depend on every last ounce of that training, as well as the old Army training he’d received when he was in his early twenties. 

            He was still a big man and strong enough to take one of them on his own, but keeping them all at bay was going to be tough.

            “That right man? You used to be a pig?”

            One of them snorted, laughing as he said, “Yeah, used to be.  Ain’t no room in here for no pig man.  You feel like cuttin’?”

            “Cuttin’ me a slab of bacon esse,” another one said, “See if he squeals like a pig.”

            He was tired of the talking, it was time to push them over the edge.  If they felt the need this would draw out for longer than he liked, and he’d be making more than one trip to the infirmary.  From experience Lorne knew that cops who were placed in gen pop didn’t last long. They were either harangued mercilessly before being chopped to pieces, or they were jumped and sent to the morgue without hesitation. 

            If he was lucky this example wouldn’t leave any doubt that he meant business.  It might even convince any other wannabe hardasses that he wasn’t to be screwed with. The chances of that were low, but he was willing to make that bet.  He had nothing else to lose.

            “I’ve heard enough of your yipping you damned chihuahua’s, so unless you wanna come in and have a little fiesta I suggest you take your little taco stand elsewhere. Otherwise get on with it.”

            One of them “tsked” him as the one in front, the one from the bus, looked at him in what

could only be described the glare of a predator that thought he was king shit of turd hill. That one

would make the first move, if not because he wanted some payback for an imagined insult, then

because his crew would expect it from him. You had to make your bones to speak, put in your work, or whatever other euphemism you wanted to use once you got to the pen, otherwise you got labeled as a bitch or a pussy very quickly. That was how you wound up someone’s property, or worse.

            “Why do white boys always go racist?” one of them asked, causing the others to laugh. 

            “They know they ain’t shit so they gotta try and prove somethin’ eh?” another replied.

            “C’mon, let’s get this shit done, I got better stuff to do.”

            Rolling his neck around he stood to his feet, waiting for the door to open. The first of them would rush in to keep him busy while the others came in and started stabbing him repeatedly. He’d seen the aftermath of a prison shanking before and knew the sight wouldn’t be pretty.

            That’s why it wouldn’t be happening if he could avoid it.

            The metallic clank of the control lever reached his ears, and it was as though a switch turned over in his mind. No longer was he a tired, beaten down older man with back problems, knee problems, and the certainty of being sent to death row when all was said and done. He was something more than that, and a little less. That little less was what helped him.

            As the first one came in he was already grabbing for his bedroll, which had yet to be unfurled. No guard had come along to ask him why his bunk wasn’t made yet, which was lucky but sloppy on their part.  If he’d still been on the line such an oversight wouldn’t have occurred.  As it stood though it might have saved his life as he used the rolled up blanket to block the first strike the initial attacker threw, the fabric managing to catch the shiv as he struck the grasping hand with his right while pulling away with his left.  It was a stroke of luck that the modified weapon didn’t go skittering away to the ground, and another stroke that allowed him to pull the shiv free as the first attacker was swiftly joined by the other three.

            This was where the order of the fight fell by the wayside. The other three weren’t about to make things fair, just as he’d known they wouldn’t. That didn’t matter, he didn’t intend to make it a fair fight either.

            Even before the three additional vatos came rushing in he was moving towards the bed, where another surprised awaited as he stuck his captured weapon deep into the stomach of his first attacker, dragging it along with him as the unfortunate vato was forced to either pull away and do more damage or follow him.  Either way would be just fine as he held onto the shiv, waiting those precious few seconds to see what happened. 

            The wounded man was obviously smart enough to not pull away as he moved towards the blade rather than away from it, offering Lorne just enough cover that the other three had to adjust their line of attack as they quickly surrounded the bed, seeking to stab him from three different angles.  It was child’s play at that moment to let them get close enough and then attack.

            He  stabbed out in front of him as he pulled his first victim close, disengaging the shiv before ramming it hard into the reaching arm of the man trying to stab him in the throat. The vato yelped as he dropped his weapon, pulling back as Lorne grabbed the second weapon just as the other two went around the other side of his first victim and tried to gut him.  He lashed out with both feet as they came close, catching one in the throat and the other in the nose as blood spurted and cartilage crunched. They both had to pull away suddenly as he then exploded off the bed, shoving the first victim away while moving towards the man he’d stabbed in the arm.

            That one was already coming forward, ready to hit him and keep hitting until he dropped. 

Such a notion was quickly forgotten when he sprouted a sharpened toothbrush in the hollow his

throat.  He fell away gagging, blood pooling and spurting around his grasping hands as he left

the fight. The first man was already down holding his gut as Lorne quickly finished off the other two, incapacitating rather than killing them.  By the time he was done they would need several weeks in the infirmary instead of just a few days.  It had been worth it though, especially considering that he’d been heading the final mile anyway.

            “Inmate!” came a booming voice from his doorway, “On the ground, now!”

            “About goddamned time,” Lorne muttered as he went face down.  To either side men were dying as the officer in command started shouting orders and calling out the situation over his walkie.  Through it all Lorne just wondered how long it would be before he was sent to isolation.  If he was lucky it would be immediate.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            As it went the trip didn’t take too long.  Perhaps it was the example written in crimson in his cell, or maybe it was just an attempt to keep him safe from retaliation, but Lorne was sent to the showers and then off to his own private cell within the hour.  That was record time as far as he was concerned, and it allowed the anger felt by the other inmates, particularly those connected to the vatos he’d sliced and diced, to simmer and bubble.  He had no illusions that he’d be safe in isolation, but at the very least they would have to work a little harder to get to him.  Anyone could be gotten to in any place, but he was figuring that isolation would at least give them pause.

            “Open the door,” came a muffled voice from outside his door.  He’d almost expected this type of visit, in fact it would have been foolish to think that the individual would leave him alone this entire time.  Old friends had a habit of bending the rules now and again for those they cared about.

            The rattling clank of the door being opened announced the aging, white-haired individual that stepped through the opening, his face set in the same perpetual scowl he always affected. That scowl had been the same facial expression he’d worn at Lorne’s wedding, at parties, and at any other social function they’d attended over the years. It seemed to be the only facial expression other than a sad, hangdog smile that Jimmy Millson seemed capable of producing.

            “Lorne,” Jimmy said with a nod, “Or rather, inmate Stilton.”

            “Why bother with formalities?” Lorne asked with a shrug, “Come to deliver a DOE?”

            Jimmy shook his head as he stood against the opposite wall, “You know I couldn’t be the one to tell you even if that was the case.”

            Lorne nodded, “Then why bother coming at all?”

            “Goddammit Lorne,” Jimmy said, shaking his head, “This isn’t easy for any of us, you most of all.”

            “Thanks for reminding me.”

            “You cut those men badly Lorne.  I mean it, one of them was dead before the guards got there and the other three are going to spend weeks in the infirmary most likely. What the hell were you thinking? And how the hell did you do it?”

            “You’ve been here long enough,” Lorne said, “You should know the answers to those questions.  I pissed off someone on the way in and he was obviously connected in some way. Even if he wasn’t it would have been just a matter of time.”

            “I know very well what must have happened. But the last time I remember you being here I don’t remember you being so violent.”

            “I wasn’t in as much danger as I am now. There’s a difference between being an armed guard and an unarmed prisoner.  One of them has a shorter life expectancy.”

            “You killed a man Lorne.”

            “And I’ll do it again if the situation calls for it. Anything else?”

            Jimmy looked at him then, long and hard.  That look spoke volumes, it said that he was being an asshole, and much more.  Right now though he didn’t care.

            “Is this the kind of person you want your family to remember?”

            This time Lorne’s look was one of pure venom, and Jimmy knew very well what it meant. But he didn’t move, he didn’t budge a single inch.  He knew too well what Lorne was, and he knew how far he could be pushed.  Lorne was a family man, someone who put the welfare of his wife and children above his own more often than not, but he was also an animal inside, someone who when pushed would go to great lengths to push back harder than could be expected. 

            “Don’t ever let my family or anything concerning them pass your lips again, warden.”

            Jimmy felt his own anger flare, “What the hell happened to you Lorne? What in God’s name happened that you turned out like this?”

            Lorne didn’t answer, he was done talking.  Jimmy saw this before he continued, shaking his head as he walked away slowly, in defeat.  There was no way to hide it and both he and Lorne knew this.  Their friendship had changed even before this whole sordid mess, and now it seemed only a shell of what it had once been. 

            “Lock it up,” Jimmy said as he stepped out.  Lorne didn’t even look at him as the door closed with a hollow bang.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            Days passed, and no further attacks came.  He wasn’t certain if he had Jimmy to thank for this or if he’d just been forgotten, but the isolation that Lorne was now enduring was only broken up by the thoughts and remembrances of a life he’d treasured more than anything only a short time ago.  He’d been incarcerated for almost a year now, and had never once fought against the idea that he should be considered for the death penalty. His wife and children had come to see him only a few times at his insistence.  She had been angry at him after a while and had even pleaded that he reconsider, that he take the advice of his court-appointed lawyer and claim defense of his family as an excuse. 

            Needless to say he’d not taken that advice.  He had taken a life in anger, and he deserved to be punished for it. He’d robbed another family, an extension of his own family, of a daughter, a sister, and a mother.  Lorne had killed his cousin in rage for daring to strike out at his family, which was in his mind a sin worthy of death.

            It was not enough to say that Desiree had posed a serious threat to his family. He’d known that just as well as anyone.  She’d been off of her meds at the time, delusional, and angered by the fact that no one had seemed capable of understanding her.  In truth her condition, that of a dyslexic, ADHD-afflicted individual with a severe inferiority complex, had taken over and caused her to lash out at everyone that had bothered to try and help her. At one point he would have done anything for her. He would have even pushed her out of the way of a speeding car no matter if it meant he’d be crushed.  She’d been his cousin, his family, his blood.  But no more.

            The moment she’d raised a hand to one of his children in anger she had become the

enemy, the threat.  She had dared to strike his eldest child because she had bothered to ask her

what was wrong with her, had dared to bring the problem out into the open, and she might not have stopped if Lorne hadn’t stepped in.  Desiree had had a temper in the past, but with age it had only gotten worse.  Despite being half his size she had taken his daughter Laney down to the ground where she had proceeded to pummel her with open slaps to the head.  Her rings had laid Laney open more than once before Lorne had attempted to pull her off. His reward for that had been an elbow in the crotch.

            Anger had been his first reaction, and his last, as he had seen red at that point.  Desiree had been his favorite cousin since childhood, closer to him than his own sister, but she had been out of control. His vision hadn’t cleared until after the few seconds it had taken for him to reach out, grip Desiree’s chin in one hand and the back of her head with the other. A violent yank to the left had snapped her neck, and an equally violent yank to the right had finished her.  The truly heinous act he’d committed had been revealed during his trial, which had gone exactly as he’d expected.

            His first action had snapped her neck, but it hadn’t killed her.  That first yank to the left had snapped several of her cervical vertebrae. She might have lost the use of her body from the neck down if not for the second vicious crank he’d given to the right, which effectively snapped her spinal cord in two.  Death hadn’t been instantaneous as in the movies, but it had been relatively quiet as her body had swiftly shut down, any and all communications between her heart and brain having been effectively ended. 

            The court-appointed attorney that his wife had enlisted to help him had attempted to get his charges lessened to manslaughter, which would have still gained him a prison sentence, but with the possibility of parole.  Unfortunately the testimony of Desiree’s elderly, spinster mother Doreen had been enough to sway the jury into accusing him of first degree murder, thereby insuring him a room at the pen.  Headlines had run shortly before and after the incident, and he’d been vilified by those who knew him and by several relatives during and after the trial.  The one person he’d hoped to never lose favor with aside from his family, Desiree’s only daughter, Autumn, had remained strangely silent throughout the ordeal. 

            He knew the strenuous relationship between Desiree and Autumn, but had never doubted their bond. Her silence had unnerved him like nothing else could, though she had said nothing damning upon the stand when she had been called up, stating only that she had been taken by surprise and that she had seen her mother assault Laney for absolutely no reason.  When asked why she believed he had done as he had, Autumn had looked at Lorne with a sorrowful look and said simply, “He was protecting his daughters.”

            There hadn’t been anything to read into those words beyond their simple meaning.  He and his wife Emily had always treasured Autumn, and had done their best to see her happy and content every time she and her mother came around. But he had seen the hurt in her eyes, and had known that no matter what, he had taken from her. He had hurt her in a way that he could never forgive himself for, and that was the absolute worst feeling of all.  Lorne knew his family would stand by him, they had already said as much during one of their only visits

            It was one of the only things getting him by right now, and it was enough.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            Another month passed, and he was taken from isolation. His rep had gotten around since

his run-in with the four members of Norteno, as he’d been told they had been. The three that had

been wounded had been transferred to medical for a time before being released, but were

apparently now under strict orders to leave the “old gringo” alone.  He’d been approached by no

less than three different sets upon his release into gen pop, and he’d done his best to deny them all what they wanted, an ex-cop on their roster.  Someone who knew the prison and how to get around certain obstacles would have been highly valuable and might have kept him safe, but it would’ve been a life he despised, and he didn’t need that type of shit on his conscience any longer.

            The white supremacists that had approached him had first applauded his actions, telling him that “beaners needed to recognize real strength”.  He’d been polite and even respectful right up until the point when they’d attempted to recruit him.  Saying no to a white supremacist was almost like telling an angry dog not to bite you after kicking it, there was a good chance that it might bite anyway.  Still, they had offered, he had said no, and they had gone on their way.  They had of course told him to think it over, that everyone needed friends in a place like this, but Lorne had only been listening with half an ear at that point.

            The day after that the local chapter of the Crips had come to see him, wondering if he wanted to make a deal of some sort.  When he had deduced that they wanted something from him because of his status as an ex-cop, he had politely declined.  He’d known that the three individuals that had come to see him, Krazy, Jimmy, and Bonez, as they called themselves, had all been packing shivs, but he hadn’t cared. He was going out of this place just one way in any case, and it wasn’t on his feet.

            After his polite dismissal of the Crips the most unlikely gang of all had come to him, the Norteno’s.  The tension around him upon their approach had been strong enough to feel on his skin, though no one had made a move.  Instead the leader of their small group, a man half his size who had identified himself as Loco, had passed him a well-worn Robert R. McCammon book titled “Swan Song”. He hadn’t understood that bit at first, but when he’d made his case for staying away from the gangs, Loco had nodded, stating that he understood. Before they had parted ways though the diminutive leader had told Lorne to check out the book, see if it grew on him.  It had been an odd request at first he believed, but when he had gotten back to his bunk for lights out he’d found out why Loco had bothered to give the book to him.

            So far he was about eighty-six pages into the apocalyptic story, but it wasn’t the tale or the script that had him thinking so intently now.  Instead, the slip of paper that Loco had planted within its pages had him thinking harder than ever.  It was just a slip of paper, nothing much, but it had kicked his mental and emotional gears into a frenzied pace that had left him unable to sleep the first night after receiving the simple little question.

            What are your words of worth?

            It was an odd question really, no doubt one that a grammar teacher would rip apart without pause, but it had still made him think.  So many times he’d seen inmates come and go with a range of emotion beginning with a whimper and ending with a boisterous cry of denial over circumstances they couldn’t change. Only a few times in his life had he ever heard a single inmate offer up anything insightful about what they were facing. 

            What are your words of worth?

            Even after a month he still couldn’t answer the question.  He had to wonder if by the end he’d ever be able to.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            More time passed, and eventually he was taken from gen pop to death row, his sentence

moving along steadily as the governor had already taken the time to approve his DOE.  Strangely

he felt at peace in his cell while awaiting his end.  Something had changed at this point, and he

knew what. 

            He had spoken to his family one last time before the DOE had come in, and had made his peace as much as he could.  His wife had been understandably emotional, as she always was. His kids had been tearful and wanted to do anything and everything they could to keep him in their lives. Visitation to the condemned had never been a popular thing he recalled from his time spent as a guard, but he could see how it could ease the pressure of what was to come.  Saying goodbye was so final, but at the very least he’d come to understand the reason why Loco had slipped him the book when he had. 

            His trip to the gas chamber hadn’t been a surprise to anyone, but it had least been respected by one person.  In speaking to his wife and children Lorne had made his peace with what was about to happen, but it had been when he had spoken to the other visitor that had come to see him, the one above all individuals that he had worried over for too long, that had truly set him at ease.  Autumn had sat silently behind the thick pane of glass for several moments before reaching up to the cracked and faded receiver hanging on the wall. 

            Their conversation had been brief, but it had been meaningful.  She had forgiven him completely for his actions, no matter that she was now without a mother and only a half-senile grandmother for support.  She knew very well that she was always welcome with his family, and that she would be taken care of in any event.  They had spoken only long enough for him to impart the words of worth he had thought long and hard on, words that had made her smile and cry at the same time.  She had forgiven him and that was enough.  But she had accepted his words, and that was more than he could have ever hoped for. 

            At the very least, he knew now the meaning of the message.

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