My Life Since Getting Out of Prison
I graduated from college in May, and this summer seemed like a good time to go through the box of papers and assignments I had been saving since the start, both to reminisce and to do a little cleanup.
Tucked in a folder of an old notebook at the very bottom of the box was the essay that follows. Written in longhand, it was the first assignment from the first class in my first semester.
January 20, 2003
My Best Summer Memory
Hey man, I’m not really sure if you’re supposed to put an introduction in this thing, but here goes anyway. My name is ____________. My assignment today is to write an essay about the best thing that happened to me this last summer.
I know everybody’s been kinda looking at me in class, wondering why a dude in his thirties is taking English 1A instead of being out there working a job. I’m not too keen on talking about myself much. Most folks aren’t, I guess, unless they’re Paris Hilton. But since the assignment is a personal essay I suppose I don’t have much choice. Anyways the best thing that happened to me this last summer was when I finally got outta prison based on that DNA evidence.
I’ll tell you man, if you can’t appreciate getting outta prison then you haven’t been there to begin with. For me it started about three years ago when this chick got murdered in East San Jose while opening up her plumbing supply shop. Me and Merle came by a couple weeks later to pick up some PVC for a sprinkler repair, and for some reason the dude behind the counter thought we was a little suspicious, so he called the cops. They put me in a line up, but of course the dude already knew what I looked like and what clothes I was wearing so it wasn’t that tough to pick me out. Other than that there was no real evidence, but I didn’t have an alibi and I had a couple drunk and disorderlies on my record back from when me and Merle used to fight each other for fun after closing time.
They had it in their minds I was guilty, and they kept after me for two days, yelling and throwing stuff at me and telling me made-up stories about how Merle told them I did it. I always figured I was pretty tough but after awhile it just wore me down. I had to look at some pictures of death row and I got showed on my arm where the needles would go and everybody called me Dead Man Walking. They told me if I signed a confession I wouldn’t get the death penalty and I had to think about that one pretty hard. The lawyer they assigned to me smelled like he’d been pulling a cork during lunch and he fell asleep while they was questioning me. I knew I didn’t do nothing but sometimes life just ain’t all fair, and this seemed like one of those times. So I signed.
After the sentencing Merle sold my truck and moved all my stuff into storage for me, and promised me he’d look after Mussel Shoals, my black lab. They sent me up to San Quentin, and when I got there, I was put in the section with the black dudes.I found out later that’s what they do with new prisoners, except the blacks end up in the white section. I guess it’s to soften up the new inmates, I dunno. Whatever the reason it didn’t take long for them to find this paleface. One day I turn around, and there they stood, the welcoming committee.
It didn’t take but one look to realize they weren’t there to bring me a fruit basket. I figured this was gonna be a test of me, find out if they could push me around, so I got a good shot in on the first one and broke his nose. Since it was four on one, I was looking at an ass-kickin for sure, so I didn’t follow up on the others too much, to try and keep ‘em from getting too mad. Well man, was I ever wrong about that. They got me face down, one on each arm and leg, then they got my pants down. About this time, right up till the last minute, I was thinking, this can’t be happening to me.
The dude whose nose I broke went first. I was heaving and twisting my body trying to get loose, but the others held me down good. He started to poke around and then forced himself in. I never in my life had anything hurt like that, man. Everything got all cloudy and I heard him call me his white bitch. Bits of snot and blood from his nose dripped down on the cement next to my head. It’s the only time in my life I ever tried to talk to God. First I asked him why. Then I asked him to help me. And he never said a word.
You know, the only thing worse than being shined on by God is having it happen at a time like that, man. But it’s just like the preachers say: you can’t fool God. He knows why you’re finally talking to him – because you need help. So God never answered me, and I was on my own. And the only thing I wanted to do was to die.
When he was done, he got up and kicked me in the head. That in a way was kind of a blessing, cause I don’t remember anything that happened after that for awhile, and I’m pretty sure the rest of those dudes took their turns.
A few weeks later, they came around again. I knew what was coming this time, and I didn’t hold anything back. I popped three of em pretty good before they got me down and did me again. They got the better of me, no question, but I left them worse for wear. That was the first time I ever saw a black eye on a black dude.
By this time I was hoping they’d think I just ain’t worth the trouble. There were plenty of others there that were easier pickins than me. But this wasn’t about finding someone for sex, it was about breaking me down. So I got another visit from my new buddies. This time, they kinda formed a circle around me before moving in, and I could see in their eyes that some of them weren’t really looking forward to this at all. Well man, welcome to the fuckin club.
This time I ended up in the prison hospital and spent a couple weeks there. One day, I was laying there thinking about how much I hurt and wondering what a life sentence was gonna be like with this happening all the time, when one of the inmates working in the hospital starts talking to me and tells me about the Aryan Brotherhood and how I don’t have to put up with the nee-grahs no more as long as I join up with em. And that’s how I ended up with the tattoo of the swastika and WHITE POWER on my arm, right up there by the bicep.
Well, time goes by and I’m getting settled into the routine of prison life, and no one is messing with my behind no more now that I’m in this white guy gang. Then from outta the blue I find out that that someone from the Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility in Montana got religious and wrote a letter confessing to killing that chick. He was just a kid, only seventeen years old. Can you believe that? Well, no one at San Quentin did. No one takes you seriously when you tell em you’re innocent, cause everybody in prison says they’re innocent. I didn’t have the letter or anything, just what I heard, so no one gave a shiet.
So I wrote to Merle, and he sent some dude from the Innocence Project to visit me. Next thing I know the prison doctor is scraping some skin from the inside of my mouth, and one day, just like that, they’re walking me out the door and on my way. Course it didn’t take more than five minutes to be up to my ass in ambulance chasers all wanting to help me sue the government for my troubles. Most of em didn’t smell much different than the public defender, and I began to wonder if I was ever gonna get a lawyer who wasn’t a fall-down drunk. The dudes at the Innocence Project gave me the name of some chick up in San Francisco to call. That was kinda far away for me, but she turned out to be a pretty good lawyer and didn’t smell of booze either. She spent a lot of time yelling at the guys from the city, and let me tell you man, after listening to that I sure was glad she was working for me and not them. In the end, I got some money, not a lot, cause I wasn’t in all that long and of course I didn’t tell a soul about the other stuff, but it was enough to get my trailer and a good truck, and they also promised to pay for retraining which is why I’m taking this class.
Once I got all signed up for school and the dust settled down, I figured I better get rid of that tattoo. So I called up Merle and told him to come on over and give me a hand with it. We heated up a weeding tool in the barbeque, and I bit down on a little stick of wood while Merle burnt off the tattoo with the weeder. You know, I never stopped biting that stick, but when the flesh started to burn, I tried to push everything outta me like emptying a squeeze bottle of Heinz ketchup. All the shame, all the rage I was carrying around inside me since I got out. I just forced it all outta me and I guess I yelled a good deal, cause Merle was looking at me kinda funny when it was done.
Merle’s my best friend, and I figured maybe it was OK if I told him about it all, so I did. And when I was done, there was a long silence, then he kinda looked at me and asked in a quiet voice if I was gonna make him burn my bunghole too, and finish the job. That Merle, he’s as dumb as a box of rocks, but he always finds a way to make me laugh.
I never really took to queers in the first place but it ain’t cause of what happened to me when I was inside prison. I don’t blame the blacks or the queers for it. That stuff really wasn’t about color or sex; it was about power plays by cons who had to ditch their humanity in order to survive. Still, as everybody knows man, no matter how many times you squeeze the bottle, you can’t get every last bit of ketchup out, and for me, I still had some bits of my experience I couldn’t get outta my head. Sometimes, I’d be watching TV and just start to feel terribly sad and weak. Mussel Shoals was back with me by then, and he seemed to know something was wrong when I felt like that. He didn’t know what, but he’d always come on over anyway, and lick my hand and rest his head on my leg. I tell you man, I really love that dog.
It was real tough getting back in the saddle with the ladies after what happened to me in prison. I’d always heard that if you so much as touched another guy’s privates you were queer for life, and although I was hoping that weren’t true, it was hard to think about sex without remembering all the bad stuff. Merle brought by some chick he was going out with who had a lady friend, and though she was nice and all I was kinda scared I wouldn’t be able to deliver the goods and have to start explaining everything, so I had to pass.
About a month after I bought my trailer, I met a nice chick at the park while out walking Mussel Shoals. She’s about my age and pretty agreeable. Betty’s her name. She has a dog, too, a female Dalmatian named Dotty. Mussel Shoals was OK with that, ‘cause he ain’t prejudiced, and they got along just great. After we’d been going out for a few weeks it was my birthday, and she and Merle came over to my trailer and surprised me with a little cake. After I blew out the candles they said we could do anything I want, their treat. So we talked about it awhile and decided to spend the day out at Great America.
Well I don’t know if you been to Great America lately but they have this new feature which is a water park, and if you asked me that part alone is worth the price of admission. After we got in we headed on over there and changed our clothes in one of the little changing rooms they have nearby. While I was waiting for Betty to change (course chicks always take forever, took me and Merle about a minute and Betty about four hours) I struck up this conversation with this Filipino dude who was waiting behind me. He had a shirt on said he’s a police officer, so of course I didn’t mention anything about being in prison. Then one of the changing rooms opened up, not the one Betty was in (of course since she takes a million years) so I told the dude to go ahead of me since I had to wait for Betty anyway.
He moved on into the room and then his son, who was maybe 3 or 4 years old, started following him, but he told the son to wait outside. So the kid kinda backstepped a ways without turning around and then reached up and took my hand, and I closed my hand around his and we stood there awhile like uncle and son. It was a great feeling man. I never got to do that with my dad, cause he passed out on some tracks and got all mashed up by a train when I was only six months old, and none of the dudes that Mom brought around after that ever stayed more than a couple days. I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do, so I just stood there and tried not to squeeze his hand too hard.
Pretty soon though I heard this laughing behind me, and it’s the kid’s mom. And I looked down at him, and he’s looking over at her, and his forehead gets all crinkly, and he looks at his hand in mine, and you can see him sorta follow my arm all the way up to my shoulder and to my head. When he figured out I wasn’t his mom, his eyes got real big and he yanked his hand away and scampered over to where she was sitting.
Well by this time his mom is pretty much doubled over with laughter and she and I are talking, and of course Betty comes out right about then and sees me talking to this hot Filipino chick and gives me the stink eye. But it didn’t take too long before I’m the one who was upset cause Betty is wearing this string bikini top and let me tell you man, if I had charged a quarter a peek for a look at her tatas I would have made a fortune that day. Betty looks a lot like Salma Hayak (specially when she gets mad, which is all the time, Geez!) and she has a really nice rack.
But you see man this is where chicks are really sneaky. Betty knew we was going to a water park and there’d be lots of chicks to look at and she didn’t want me looking at em. So she wore her most revealing outfit cause she knew I’d have to keep an eye on her. At a place like Great America there are tons of buff dudes walking around trying to grab your chick when you’re distracted. So you got to keep your eye out every minute and that cuts into your time cruising the hotties. And speaking of that I think next time I’m gonna tell Betty how much I enjoy checking out the babes while she’s goofing around in the dressing room. That oughta speed her up.
We had a great time and ate crummy food and I won a Spongebob doll for Betty at the pitching booth. Merle almost got in a fight with some dudes who stole a big doll from one of the other carnival booths but the rent-a-cops broke that one up before it started. Later he got sick after going on the Invertigo and we got to watch him puke in a trash can. That part wasn’t so good, but after it got dark the fireworks started going off and Betty snuggled up to me real close and I forgot all about Merle, and we kinda lost him. It worked out OK though in the end. Merle called me later and told me that when he got out to the parking lot he ran into the same dudes he almost got in a fight with, and they ended up going out drinking and they’re his dawgs now. I never heard Merle call anyone that before, but he don’t generally hang out with black dudes either.
After the fireworks was done, Betty came back with me to my trailer, and we started watching American Idol. Well, one thing led to another and the next thing you know we was in bed getting ready to do the horizontal mambo. She was kinda nervous so I cracked a few jokes to relax her till she told me to shut up. I was nervous too, man. I was worried about maybe being queer, but besides even that, this was gonna be the first time for me since before I went to prison, and I was afraid I might be a little rusty.
It was a night I think I’m always gonna remember. First-time sex with a chick who’s your girlfriend is always a big deal, specially if you’re a guy. You get to see what she looks like naked, specially the boobs, and see what kind of funny noises she makes when she gets all excited. In spite of all my worrying, everything turned out OK. I guess sex is like being on a bicycle, you never forget how to ride. Still, it took Betty a long time to come that night, but that’s probly cause she was busy with her own first-time sex thoughts. Chicks are funny about that. It’s like the first time you take em out to dinner. They don’t care about the dinner so much as not looking bad eating it, which usually means not eating much of it at all. Same thing with sex. The first time, they don’t care so much about coming as much as they don’t want to embarrass themselves. Next time though you better deliver, that is if you want there to be a third time.
So we’re laying there afterwards, her head on my shoulder, and just talking real soft about nothing in particular, when all of a sudden there’s this big commotion and damn if Mussel Shoals wasn’t trying to have sexual relations with Dotty. She didn’t seem quite as interested as he was, but he stayed right on it, the two of em crashing into the walls and the bed and just going to town. I’ll tell you, no one is gonna mistake ol’ Mussel Shoals for a 60 minute man, but seeing it was his first time and all, maybe he’ll improve with practice.
A bit later I was the only one awake, and I was laying there listening to the three of em making their sleep noises, and wishing I could get my arm loose somehow so I could get a glass of water without waking up Betty. But I just laid there listening to the sounds, and smelling the odors of the people sex and dog sex, and thinking about my life.
I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. I wanted to be a big success and fall in love with the prom queen and live in a four bedroom house with two kids and a Chevy just like white people do in the movies. It didn’t take long to figure out that wasn’t gonna happen, and things started to look real bad there for awhile like I just told you about, and much as I try to, I’m probly never gonna forget how I got into prison and what happened to me there.
But all and all, life really ain’t been so bad to me, man. Betty said she thinks I might make a good lawyer someday. I told her I’ll be lucky to pass this class much less make it all the way to law school. But she thinks I can become a lawyer, not one like the city gives you that drinks his lunch, but someone who really helps people, maybe even get some other dudes outta prison that don’t belong there either. She said everybody has a destiny in life, and mine is to help people to redeem their lives. How can you not love a chick who talks like that, specially about you?
Come to think of it, the best thing that happened to me last summer was meeting Betty. I got me a good woman in that chick. I got someone to calm me down after I get cut off on the freeway by some dick, and to help me express my true feelings without cussin. She’s someone who’ll open the aspirin bottle for me when I have a hangover, fake an orgasm when I really need her to, and maybe someday, God willing, remind me how many kids we have and what their names are. Guys don’t give their chicks enough credit for this sorta stuff, and frankly you dudes out there reading this, if you are not making use of this kinda help then you are not getting full value outta your chick.
I’m gonna do my part too. I’m gonna protect her, always. I’m gonna hold her and pet her head and tell her everything’s OK when she’s feeling sad. I’m gonna nod at her sympathetically while thinking, “Who fuckin cares?” while she bitches on and on about some other chick at work who looked at her the wrong way. I’m gonna help her watch football with me, let her change my haircut and clothes all the time, and worry about all the big shiet so she has plenty of time for chick stuff like shopping and crying.
It was a great summer, man. And I’m looking forward to the rest of my life.
I got a D for this essay (“inappropriate content)”, and a C-minus for the course. I was pretty discouraged, but Betty wouldn’t let me quit. She said that this might not be my last chance to change my life, but it sure was going to be my best chance, and I should go all out. At the department graduation ceremonies in May, the entire faculty rose and applauded me as I walked up to get my diploma. And then before you know it, everyone else got up and joined in too, and Betty started bawling her eyes out. I was really embarrassed, but fortunately Merle was there, and he shouted “It’s about fucking time!” to me, which cracked up everyone and got them back into their seats. In the fall, I’ll start law school at Santa Clara University, on an Emery scholarship.
Merle is a Precinct Captain for the Obama Campaign.
Mussel Shoals went on to live a happy life with Dotty. When his hearing started to go, we noticed that she was helping him to understand when we gave him commands. One by one his parts started to wear out, and on December 24th of last year, my dearest friend licked my hand one last time and then slept away. I buried him on a short hill, next to a trail where I used to hike with him and Dotty. The view is beautiful, and when we visit, Dotty will lay next to him for as long as I am willing to stay.
About three years ago my grades started to get very good and it looked like school would stick. I came home one night and told Betty that I thought things were getting better every year, year after year. She started crying and wouldn’t tell me why. It took me a long time to figure it out, and when I did I felt pretty sheepish. I asked her, she answered yes, and nine months to the day of our wedding night, little Tina was born. She’s as cute as a bug, and someday when she is old enough to learn about her old man’s story, I will take this essay out of storage for her to read.