Brown Grave, And Me
Phillip James Roberson
(pen name: Kamara Mtengenzaji)
Box No. B-27585
Represa, CA 95671
The First time I ever saw Brown Gravy was back in the Summer of 1958. I was in the Los Angeles County Jail working out my retirement plan. That might be incomprehensible to anyone who did not know about the dozen Bank Robberies I was about to answer for. With the amount of time I was bound to be sentenced, I figuered I could forget about anything and everything but old age.
I was housed on the twelfth floor in “D” Row when Gravy and two of his buddies came in. Whenever the main tier gate opens, everybody already inside usually comes out to see whether they recognized the newcomers, as some could be friends or relatives, and though I had a few of the former and none of the latter, I peeked out too.
The three of them entered carrying bedrolls. They were generally disheveled. Their hair, damp and matted agreed with the rough dryed blue shirt and pants a prisoner gets when he’s fresh from the initial showers.
The first guy in was small and neatly built, composed of angles and apparently little else. He was light-brown with red-gold kinky hair he wore in a short cut, and he seemed very nervous.
The man behind him was tall, about sic feet, with a very dark complexion, a broad high forehead emphasized by the sharply defined hairline of his process. At the moment it was wet was plastered against his head. His heavy eyebrows focused attentions on his tight slanted eyes, which were unwinking and wary as those of a wolf. He looked like he could be a bad enemy.
The last guy was about the same height, but he was whipcord thin. He was so skinny it looked like it pained him cause his eyes kind of bugged out. His face dark and narrow enclosing a wide thin splash of a mouth. Right down the center of his face was an unusually looking delicate nose, however, I don’t think it would have looked right on anybody else but him. It was lean just like the rest of him, in fact, everything about that youngster was sharp and emphatic, like a splinter.
Nobody seemed to know them and I surely didn’t, so, curiosity satisfied, I went back to my cold-water shave. I frowned at the whiskers in the crevices under my chin, stubbornly resisting my razor, and renewed my attack. The skin was a little tender when I finished scraping so I massaged some Dixie Peach into my face and the rest to my closely trimmed hair. The hair pomade gave my dark face a healthy, well-cared for appearance, which was saying something the way the hard-water and lye soap in this place did mayhem to a guys skin. Rubbing the excess grease off with my towel, I examined myself in the mirror in the wall.
Mine is a broad, square face, full of hard-knock lines, offset by a wide jaw, a big wide nose, large ears and a rather barbarously low brow that unjustly robs me of any look of intelligence. It was, I felt, a face that had definately softened with age. When I was younger I was capable of giving people nightmares. However, I didn’t think my face was ugly, by no means, it was just distinctive.
“You’ll be thirty-eight in a few months ol’thang,” I said, grinning at my reflection.
“Thirty-eight.” I thought, but I felt like twenty-eight. Except for a few more pounds on my five-foot eight frame that wasn’t there ten years ago, I hadn’t changed much, at least, not in appearance. The actual changes I had undergone were ingrained deeper than the face admitted. I was contemplating this profound truth when a shadow filled the corner of my eye.
Standing in the cell entrance was that lean youngster I’d seen come in a few moments before.
“I’m supposed to bunk here,” He said apologetically.
“Sure Youngblood,” I answered. “Slide your roll under the bed there with the others.”
“How many have to sleep in here?” he asked.
“Must be yo’furst time in jail, otherwise you know three sleeps inside, and you and the other guy sleeps on the Freeway.”
“Yeah, the walkway outside the cell, we call that the Freeway.”
“Oh,” he replied as he pushed the roll under the bunk. “Allright if I sit on your bunk?”
“Ain’t mine, I sleep on the top. But go’head on, James don’t mind. Everybody in here out to court today and they likely gone for the next coupla weeks, so you can use it when you want.”
The youngster sat down and leaned against the wall. I could see he was still suffering from the confusion one always feels the first time in jail. He couldn’t seem to find anything to do with his hands. Finally he began to tap out a broken bothersome rythmn against the edge of the metal bunk.
To ease his mind, I offered him a smoke.
“Alright, thanks Leroy.”
“What kinda case you got Kid?” I asked, but I wasn’t really interested. He was making me nervous with all his fidgiting and carrying on, so I thought I’d occupy him a little bit.
He shifted uneasily before my question. “I ain’t got nothing really, though I been charged with armed robbery.
He sounded as though he was ashamed and that surprised me. Most youngsters his age that came to jail were usually proud of their exploits. You didn’t have to ask them, they’d tell you and if you did make the mistake of asking, you couldn’t shut them off. Before the week would be out you’d think you were knee-deep in Baby-faced Nelson’s.
“So, you a Candy-stick man, huh?”
He took a sharp drag off the cigarette. I ain’t never robbed nobody, they got me on circumstantial evidence, Pops.”
“Leroy,” I grunted. “Youngblood, the joint is fulla guys convicted on circumstantial evidence.”
The Kid shook his head in denial. “May-be, but this ain’t my case.”
I turned away to comb my hair. “If they charged you with a robbery blood, you good as convicted, so you might as well be guilty.”
“But I didn’t do it!” he protested, lifting his hands and letting them fall in exasperation. “Don’t the truth count anymore?”
“Not when you start taking money out there, they frowns on that worse than Murder. But, I hear what’chu saying, though I don’t necessarily believe it. Its all ritual with me blood. You can’t imagine how many dudes I’ve met just in this cell alone who claimed they was innocent. Some of us is lying, ort he Po-lice is sure making a lot of mistakes.”
He exhaled slowly, morosely. “I told you, I ain’t robbed nobody, Pops.”
“It’s Leroy,” I reminded him. “Okay, say you didn’t. Did the alleged Robbers whup anybody?”
“Well then, you ain’t in too bad ashape. You may do two, two and a half, and, if you real lucky, you might do a year county time.”
“I don’t wanna hear that stuff Pop.” The Kid said wearily.
“Leroy,” I reminded him again. “Well now, don’t get fretful, that ain’t gonna help you kid. By the way, what’s your name anyhow?”
“You got a nickname?”
“Yeah, it’s Brown Gravy.”
“Well, I can understand it.”
“Never mind, tell me, if you didn’t do it, who did?”
Gravy drew on the cigarette slowly, not looking up when he spoke. “Pop, I ain’t in no position to say, cause I didn’t actually see the robbery, you know? All I know is the 77th Street Po-lice busted me, the two dudes I came in with, and a girl. They found a sawed-off shotgun in the car, a sack of money and four suspects.”
I guffawed. The Kid fixed me with a wounded expression. “Kid,” I chuckled, “You outta quit that shucking and jiving.”
“You must think I’m Willie Lump-Lump, or Fred Lunchmeat, or some Goddamn body.”
The Kid was silent for a moment, probably wondering if I was a fool or what the way I was talking, but it was funny to me. He wasn’t laughing though, and I’m sure he didn’t think much of my clowning.
“Look Pop,” he snapped. “This ain’t no laughing matter. I don’t know nothing about no robbery. Earlier the night we were busted, we was all partying in Pasadena. They wanted to go for a ride to L.A., and I says okay, you know? Then…I passed out.”
“Yeah. You see I was fulla that pluck and I’d dropped a couple of Reds too, so I wasn’t in no kind of shape to drive. I gave them my car keys and I laid out in the back seat.”
“It was yo’car?”
I burst out laughing again and almost strangled trying to choke it off in the face of the Kid’s wrath. He was smoking mad.
“There you go again, ole’man,” he said angrily. “I shouldn’t atold you nothing. You just want something to laugh at, you don’t care about what I’m saying.”
“I’m sorry Kid,” I said chuckling.” I…well, you got to admit, it ain’t hard to see why you in here.”
“Go’head, finish telling me about it.” I urged.
“Anyway, all I can figure is they musta went back inside my pad, got my gun, drove to L.A., took off the liquor store while I was asleep and maybe was hoping I’d never know.”
“Did they have a line-up?”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t identified. Plus, the Police told me later that witness saw only three people in the car, but when they stopped us, there were four.”
“Well, how come they didn’t let you go after all that?”
“I guess it’s because they found a shotgun shell in my shirt pocket.”
He was humiliated. “Pops, I swear, I don’t know how that shell got in my pocket. I think Duke or Curly musta slipped it in my shirt before I woke up. When I did wake up, the police was dragging me out the car, threatening to shoot me and I don’t know what else.”
“Well, did anybody tell them you was sleep and didn’t know what was happening?”
“Damn right!” he said emphatically. “I told them first of all, and then there was the girl, Fostine. She told them the gun was hers, but I think that only made it worse.”
“Why?” I asked.
“They think she was my girl and we trying to protect each other or somethin’.”
“Is she yo’ole lady?”
He shook his head. “Naw, she Duke’s ole’lady.”
“Well, that did it then, huh?”
“What you gonna do about it, I mean, if you really ain’t guilty, how you plan on getting out of it?”
“Ain’t no way,” Gravy said sourly. “Unless Duke or Curly confess, and they won’t. They plan on fighting it, but they gonna lose, ‘specially Duke. He was identified in the line-up, so was Fostine. They gonna lose and take me to the joint with’em.”
I lit a fresh cigarette, rolling the smoke around in my mouth before expelling it. “Looks kinda bad Kid. What you think you’ll do if they take you with’em?”
“Well,” he snorted. “they just better cut me loose. Curly already on Parole so even if he beat it, I hear he’ll probably get violated and go back. If Curly’ll cop-out, I’m okay, but he won’t. He’s scared of Duke, more so than he is of me. But one thing I can promise you. If they take me with’em, they can’t walk the big yard with me there.
“You gonna dust’em?”
He paused to think about it. “I don’t think I could do that, but sure could whup knots on their goddamn heads.”
I laughed. The classic answer to all problems from youngsters of the street. If it don’t act right, hit it in the head. I was beginning to take a liking to this Kid and decided to try and help. Otherwise, he was going to be a victim as much as the guy who was robbed. This one still had a chance in the world. He had been in the streets, that much was obvious, but he was still green. None of the hard-core stuff had rubbed off on him yet, however, if he went to San Quentin or one of the other state joints, he’d never be the same. I had a feeling that if this kid went bad, he’d go all the way Bad. By the same token, it was just as easy for him to go the other way and straighten out his life, if he had the chance.
Several days later, the Kid received a visit. When he came back his eyes were shining. I knew he had plenty to talk about, it was written all over him. But, before he could say anything, his two partners, Duke and Curly, eased up to the door.
Duke stood there looking had as Killer Joe or somebody while that jittery little Curly moved around the opening behind him. I didn’t mind Curly to much, but I can’t honestly say I cared much for that guy Duke. Maybe it was cause he seemed to hard for a youngster. He might have been alright if he’d let anybody get past that real tough guy image he projected. Yet, even with that, I could swear he approached the Kid with politeness, if not respect.
“Who came to see you Gravy?” Asked Duke, squinting his eyes and fixing the Kid with a shrewd, intense gaze. Lesser men might have been intimidated. But not the Kid. I didn’t see or sense no fear in him, maybe some caution, but that ain’t fear. Its just a respect for a worthy adversary.
“Uh-my sister Duke. She was worried, you know?”
“Yeah”, Gravy said easily. “You don’t know my sister do you?”
“Naw, Naw I don’t.”
“Yeah, well that’s who it was man.”
“Right,” said Duke. “I’ll see ya later.”
The two of them left. Gravy waited a minute, watching the suspicious glances cast his way as they walked down the tier. Finally the Kid spoke.
“That was Fostine who came to see me Pop.”
“Duke’s woman, huh? Boy you a cool one alright,” I sputtered. Ain’t you worried about that guy?”
“Naw, not now. Dig, let me tell you what happened.” The Kid stood in the doorway undecided for a moment, then turned to me and began to talk in a low intense voice. “Early that night we was busted, Duke left Fostine with me at the party. He went to see some other broad he had cross town. While he was gone, Fostine asked me if she could lay down on my bed cause she was feeling sick. But that was a come-on, see? Well, she had me help her up to my apartment, which was in the same building. I’m tore down you see, and she also claimed the Reds had messed her up so bad she needed my help. But when we got inside the pad, we wasn’t there five minutes and we was panting in the sack, ya dig? She was telling me she had been waiting for a time like that. She had wanted me since she first set eyes on me, and after that, she wanted me for good.”
“What did you say?”
“Well, I dug her and everything, she fine and all that. But I didn’t really want to fight Duke over her, you know? I mean, this was too quick. Well, anyway, I told her to let me think about what she said when my head was straight, then I’d let her know. But, we got busted and I never had a chance to say anything about it until today.”
I snorted. “Is that all she came to see you for? Say, how did she get out?”
“Her people bailed her out, but that’s not important now. The important thing is she still wanted to know about me and her.”
“What’chu tell her?”
“I said yeah. I righteous dug her, you know, but I told her it really didn’t make no difference now cause it looked like I was going to the joint. Man, you shoulda heard her then.”
“What she say?”
“She say now that I was her man, she wasn’t gonna let me go nowhere.”
I sighed. “I know what that means.”
“She said if Duke don’t cut me loose, she would,”
“I knew it. She’s planning on turning State’s evidence.”
“Yeah, but damn Pops, if Duke don’t know what he was doing, if he had taken care of his business, and hadn’t forced her and curly on that robbery, and if she hadn’t found out about the other broad, none of us would be in this fix. He liked to slapped her brains out to make her carry the shotgun into the store.”
“He did that?”
“That’s what she said. She told me that her and Curly tried to wake me up at a filling station just before the robbery. They didn’t want any part of the robbery, and they figured if they woke me up, I’d stop him.”
“Could you have done that Kid? Duke seems like he’s a bad dude, and you don’t look so tough.”
“I’m not tough,” Gravy said. “I’m just not scared of Duke, and he knows it. He can fight a taste, but I’m better and I don’t push my weight around. Fostine and Curly knew knew I could stop him, but the Reds had knocked me out, then they goes and do the job.”
“How come Curly ain’t scared of you like he is Duke, if you can handle Duke?”
“He ain’t scared cause he know I ain’t the kind to do nothing unless somebody jump on me. He ain’t gonna do that, so he ain’t got nothing to be scared about. But Duke don’t need no excuse.”
“Well, Duke’s ass is in trouble right now.”
“His own fault Pop. He ought to know better than to rob a brother anyhow, cause that guy would never forget what he looked like, plus Duke ain’t easy to forget.”
“Yeah, you right about that.” I offered. Me and Gravy talked on and touched many subjects, forgetting about the robbery and his troubles. But the next day, Duke brought it back to him in vivid detail.
Duke and Fostine had been to court that morning on a check-cashing beef, and she had chose that time to break off with Duke. As a result, when the tank gate opened that evening, Duke stalked up and to the cell with blazing eyes and anger like a storm in his dark face.
“You lied to me,” he hissed, his voice lowering and hardening in rage. “That was Fostine who came to see you. What you two trying to do, cross me?”
He looked like he was on the verge of running off into the cell and attacking the Kid, and Gravy stood up to face him. I was behind the Kid so I could only imagine his face being as hard as the steel in his voice when he spoke.
“Don’t do nothing you gone regret Duke.”
He said it slowly, threateningly. Duke frowned and I would have given anything to see the look the Kid was giving him at that moment, cause it was draining off Duke’s anger like a Lightning Rod. Caution flitted across Duke’s face, his nostrils flared with the effort of restraint, but he didn’t do anything. He had been impressed by the Kid and his voice showed it. It was noticibly subdued when he spoke.
“I ask you again, you trying to cross me?”
“You have crossed yourself, Duke. Me, I ain’t that kinda man, and so far as Fostine is concerned, she’s my woman now and we ain’t gonna discuss her.”
Duke’s anger flared again. The menace in him seeped out of his body till you could almost see it. He seemed to rise up another full inch, his chest swelling and his eyes tightening to slits, a dangerous promise in them. He abruptly turned on his heel and moved down the tier.
I whistled in relief. “I’d sure hate to pass a dark alley when that guy was in it. That guy is mad Kid.”
Gravy took my offered cigarette, lit it, shrugged his shoulders and asked. “What you think about this Pops?”
“How many times I got to remind you not to call me Pops. I ain’t but thirty-eight—“
“Alright Leroy Goodard, what do you think?”
“What about, you and Duke?”
“Naw. I can handle Duke. I’m worried about Fostine. How can I depend on her?”
“You can’t depend on a woman in situations like this Kid. They’ll flip-flop everytime.”
“How can I keep her in my corner?”
“Well, I can see only one way, You got to get bailed out. You got to be out there with her, be where you can keep it on her mind. Make her see what its worth to keep you out of the joint.”
“What do I have to do to prove that?”
“Are you serious?” I asked, unbelieving.
“Yeah, sure. What can I do to show her that.”
“You ain’t been castrated have you?”
“No—Ohhhh! I see!”
“Good, cause you gotta be there. If you don’t, she’ll get scared and she’s liable to do anything to stay free. She’ll probably go to jail, but they never give a woman much time, so its to both your advantages to let her do the time rather than you. Since she going to do that, you must understand something else. A woman is like a guitar with loose strings. When a man gets her, he must tune first one string, then another, and another, then he can strum out some beautiful music. If she care about you like she say, you can be sure you won’t go to the joint. She’s your only hope, cause Duke sure ain’t gonna help you.”
“Okay, but how the hell do I get out? I ain’t got a dime.”
“Talk to your lawyer. If I know this girl, she’ll tell her Public Defender what happened and the D.A. and the Judge will find out. You ask your P.D. for release on your Own Recognizance. That’s what they call O.R.”
“Won’t be nothing to it if she gone cut me loose, huh?”
“That’s right.” I said.
“Yeah, right.” he whispered. His eyes were on me, but I could see he wasn’t looking, he was somewhere else.
Sure enough, the next time they went to court, the Kid didn’t come back, so I know he got his O.R. release. I never saw him after that, but it was just as well. I was too busy fighting my own case to be of much help to him. I didn’t fight too hard though, and I had my reasons. I was found guilty but only got fifty years at McNeil Island, a Federal penitentiary.
A few months later, I crossed the Sound in Washington State to begin what seemed like the beginning of retirement, or the beginning of the end of my life…alone.
The Island wasn’t a bad place to do time, if you just had to do some. The Guards or the Convicts weren’t hard to get along with there, and the rules were reasonable enough, even for a perpetual gripe. The Guards were in their late forties or early fifties, only a few years away from a twenty-year pension. They knew who they were and had no bones to pick with the convicts, so, with the kind of attention to older staff members gave to the place, time went by easier.
I been here ten years now. It has been, in some ways okay, in other ways, it has been rough. In the Okay department, I make enough money in the furniture to take care of my needs and all my wants too, so that’s good. But otherwise, it gets a little rough when ou don’t have anybody in the street, and that was one of the reasons I probably wound up here. You see, I reached a cross-roads in my life fifteen years ago. At thirty-four I stopped and took stock of myself. I looked behind me and saw a piss-poor past. I looked to the future and saw even worse cause I was going to get old, and that was bad, cause I had absolutely nothing. Plus, I couldn’t expect anything considering the ignorant state of my existence. Why, I just learned to read and write since I been here at McNeil Island. But then, that was a long way from my thoughts. I think now I could have went to night school and bettered myself, but my pride wouldn’t allow me to accept the ridicule or pity people might direct at me. So I started robbing banks. I figuered I couldn’t lose that way. Either I made enough money to secure my future, or the Government would secure it for me. There was nobody to worry about me. I was an orphan since age ten. Ran away from a Foster home in Texas at twelve and been on my own since then. They tell me a self-made man is the product of unskilled labor. It could never have been more correct in my case.
Deciding to be a bandit did change my life irrevocably. Before, I had been worried about my future and I hadn’t relished the idea of being poor, probably sickly in my old age, and possibly sleeping in alleys and so forth. No…that didn’t appeal to me at all. But after I decided to do what I did, I was no longer worried. And that gave my life a strage new power. Oh, I don’t mean that the Robberies themselves were the source of it, no, it wasn’t that. I looked at robbery as a necessary instrument in completing my goal to secure my future, so it wasn’t that. It was the decision to act that changed my life. I can see now that it would have had the same effect if I’d chose more lawful activities, but I was too desperate to think constructively, and maybe feeling a little sorry for myself had something to do with it too. But the point is, I changed. I began to care, I could afford to care for others now. I had nothing to lose my doing that. I guess thats a shameful thing to say, but I’m not judging, or moralizing, I’m simply reporting this event in my life.
Take Brown Gravy for instance. If I’d met the Kid a few years earlier, before my decision, I wouldn’t have had anything to do with him because I would have been afraid of letting someone get close to me. I was afraid of the pain a ruptured friendship might have given. So actually, it was better that we met when we did. I truly liked that youngster, and I think he liked me. We had a chance to talk quite a bit while he was there, and I guess we got a chance to see sides of each other most people never do. However, I try not the think about the Kid or anything that might have been out there on the street. When you got a lot of time to do, you forget about the street, family and friends, and make the guys in your cell your family.
Besides myself, there are six other guys in the cell. The cell is big enough for ten guys, but it’s more comfortable with only SIX. Most everyone in the cell is about the same age, ranging from thirty to mu forty-eight years. There is Napoleon, he’s forty-seven, Then Jessie, he’s forty. Then there’s Joe, he’s thirty-five, Claremore, thirty-three and Little-man, who’s thirty.
We are an odd mixture of forgers, dope peddlers, robbers and a counterfieter. They were my family. Loneliness still hovers over us all, but its often relegated to the background by the antics of the guys in the cell. Take yesterday for instance. I had been dozing after chow, getting some much needed rest, when I was awakened by Jessie and Little-Man coming in after night school. They were arguing in earnest.
“Man, you don’t know what’chu talking ‘bout,” said Jessie. “Egypt is too in Africa.”
Just as vehemently, Little-man insisted it was outside Afria. Jessie saw me sit up and started towards me to drew me into it, but I waved him off. “You guys know I don’t get in your arguments, so spare me brother.”
“Well,” said Jessie. “I don’t blame you Leroy, cause this fool ain’t gonna believe you if you agreed with me. When Joe come in, he’ll straighten yo’ ignorant ass out.”
“I don’t need no Joe to tell me nothing. If I say it ain’t in Africa, ain’t there chump.”
“Now looka heah, I ain’t gone be to many mo’them chumps either!”
“You gonna be that lame one lameus.”
“Alright, short ass,” Jessie warned. “You ain’t no Hog just cause you used to box a taste. I’ll do you like that white-boy did yo’ ass.”
“That white-boy ain’t done nothing to me!” shouted little-man defensively.
“Shit!” exclaimed Jessie. “That cracker was whupping hair outta yo’head till it looked like a dust storm.”
Little-man had a small man’s complex, and he hated to be wrong about anything, and he had a particular virulent dislike for mention of his only Ring loss to a white-boy.
“Youse a goddamn lie sucka!”
Napoleon and Joe came in at this point.
“Y’all at it again, huh?” asked Napoleon. “What’s it about this time?”
Jessie ignored little-mans balled fists and his bobbing and weaving and turned to Napoleon.
“Napoleon, this sucka done it again. He made a goddamn fool of hisself in the Black History class tonight. He wrote down that Egypt was outside Africa in Is-real or some other fuckin’ place.”
“It is O’big-headed chump.” declared Littleman.
“I told you I wasn’t gonna be no’mo them chumps short ass.”
Little-man bobbed and faked jabs in Jessie’s direction. “Come on then sucka, come on.”
Napoleon stepped between them, hands up facing the two antagonists. “Ya’ll wait a minute now. Joe, settle this bullshit will you? I swear, the guys is getting more ignorant with every book they read.”
Little-man and Jessie forgot about their argument and united to fend off the mutual attack from Napoleon. Joe shook his head in dismay at the heated words. “You guys do this everytime you come from class, ain’t they teaching you nothing?” He retrieved a book off his bedstand and brought it back to the big table in the center of the cell. “Ya’ll cool it a minute ‘fore the police come up here talking that stuff. Thumbing through the pages he stopped at a map. “Now, look Little-man, Egypt is right up there in the Northeast corner of Africa. See, there it is right there.”
Little-man looked at the map for a long time in silence. He looked up and frowned at Jessie’s smiling face. “Well,” he sulked, “It was almost next to Isreal.”
“Awwww sucka, you just ignut, not ignorant, but ig-nut. You don’t want nobody to tell you nothing.”
“Honest Jess, I thought I was right man. You gonna hold that against me cause I thought I was right, huh?”
“Alright, forget it man, just shaddup. Damn, I’m tired of arguing with you.” It soon quieted down. It was an uneventful reminder of the evening after that, and I painted until past midnight before becoming sleepy.
Just before chow today, Joe received five letters from different people, and promptly earned the envy of Little-man, and I have to admit, me too. Joe was a ladies man and he’d only been in a year, so the mail was still coming hot and heavy. Yet, we knew it was bound to stop, but Joe didn’t. It always stopped after the first year, or sometimes after two but usually, it was shorter than that. When you come to prison, people forget you if you got any at all. Once in a while everybody got at least one letter. That is, everybody but me. However, I had tried not to notice.
“Hey Joe,” said little-man. “You don’t be bullshittin’ with the mail do ya?”
“You just got to say something cause you don’t get them kinda letters.” retorted Jessie. “Mind yo’own busy-ness Duck!”
I gets letter lame. You the one don’t get no letters.” Little-man chided.
“I got one this evening, did you even get one?” Asked Jessie.
“That’s alright, I’ll get one tomorrow. Anyway, Joe’s letters ain’t gonna last that long anyhow.” Littleman was peeved at Jessie’s barbs and took it out on Joe. But Joe didn’t appreciate it.
“What’chu saying little-man?”
“Bruh, I hates to be chickenshit, you know, but-uh, nobody gets mail like that after they been here a while. You just got here that’s why yours is coming so regular.”
“You fulla shit too!” spat Joe.
“Alright, alright, don’t get mad bruh.” Little-man threw his hands up in mock fight, happy now that he had piques someone. “I been here five years Joe, and All I gets is a letter from my Momma. The rest stopped writing the first year. I done seen guys in here man what had wives and kids and everything and they don’t last a year. I don’t know why it is they women falls down on’em when they comes to the joint. Maybe it’s the way he was on the street, maybe he too far away, maybe they feel he let them down, or…maybe they just got to have somebody pounding on that womb too regular to wait, I dunno. Napoleon could probably tell ya, he studies that kinda shit. But you ask anybody who been here a couple years and they tell ya’blood, them women gets to acting funny.
Dispirited, Joe regarded the pile of letters, intimidated by Littlemans harangue.
“You might be right man, but I don’t thank so. I got some good broads man, they won’t cut out. I got kids by some of them.”
“Man I hope you right. I sho’hope you right, cause I like to see that happen, you know?” Little-man layed back on his bunk. “Hey Napoleon, tell Joe how them broads don’t last a year.”
Napoleon was making a steaming cup of coffee under the hot water faucet. He took a sip, frowned, poured more coffee in the cup, tasted it again and smacked his lips satisfactorily. “When Joe asks me to give him a discourse on black man, black woman interpersonal relationships, I’ll do so, not until. I have to respect a man’s privacy.”
“I ain’t asked you to have no intercourse, I say tell—“
“I heard what you said littleman, what I’m saying is No! And the word is discourse, not intercourse.”
“Well it shoulda been intercourse cause you fucking with my mind using all them twenty-five cent words.”
Napoleon slid around the cell in his long underwear and a pair of old slippers. His dark, nearly bald pate gleamed under the fluorescent lighting. Claremore was laying on his bunk reading the Bible. Napoleon was looking for a squabble. He loved to start an argument, get everybody involved, then go to bed leaving us at each others throats. Right now his attention was centered on Claremore the one-time dope peddler, now novice preacher.
“Claremore Beauford,” he said in a rhythmic voice, “That is a diabolical piece of literature you’re reading there. It has led millions of people down the path of Death and Destruction over the last thousand years or so. Here we are in an age when the future of the black race hangs in the balance of the struggle we are entering into, an age when the question of black and white relations is a world topic, an age when nothing but freedom will do, in all forms, and there you lay, looking like Booker T. Sharack Cottonmouth, reading the Bible. What you got to say for yourself man?”
In the classical Oliver Hardy intonation, Beauford raised up and said “I have noth-thing to say.”
As the laughter subsided, he fixed Napoleon with a smile. “Besides, I am a free thinking person Nappy and—“
“NAPPY!” Chortled Littleman. He hooted and fell off the bed on the floor, kicking his short legs and pointing at the incensed Napoleon.
Napoleon was not to be denied his revenge. Somehow though, for the moment the tables had been turned and he was the object of ridicule.
“I don’t see how,” Napoleon responded icily, “You could lay there and say you’s a free-thinking man. You was selling the hell outta heroin fo’you got here, now you calls yo’self a preacher and you trying to sell another kinda dope to black folks, nigguh please!”
“I’ve seen the light. I’m through with that kind of life Nappy—“
“Don’t call me nappy. My name is Napoleon.” Shouted Beaufords victim. Littlemn broke out in fresh gales of laughter.
“You’re a traitor Claremore Beauford. A traitor to your people. We can forgive you selling dope when you didn’t know the consequences, but you know better now. That dope you learning how to sell through the Bible is worse than heroin ever was.” Napoleon reared back and gave him the coup de grace. “You musta been influenced by that white woman.”
Claremore dripped his book and sat up on the edge of the bunk. He was primed now. Napoleon knew that any mention of Beaufords white wife would bring him around. Claremore had married before the Black Movement gained momentum and now he was highly sensitive to any pointed barbs directed at that fact. It was the one weak chink in his otherwise Napoleon-proof armor.
“What’s my wife got to do with this anyway?”
“Nothing I hope, seeing you’s a free thinking man, so she probably don’t have nothing to do with it. That makes it more your fault than ever. As much as we been trying to tell you about what you doing, the less you learning.”
“I’ve learned that you fulla shit–.” Sneered Beauford, then caught himself, but it was too late.
“Good lord Beauford,” Crowed Napoleon. “That wasn’t shit coming outta yo’mouth was it?” Napoleon’s spirit was up now. He knew he had Beauford on the run anytime he made him angry enough to curse.
Napoleon verbally feinted and jousted with Claremore until Joe and Little-man got in it, then he slyly eased out of the conversation and went to bed. Soon, tired of the bickering, I turned over in my bunk and put on my earphones and lay gazing out the barred windows at the distant winking shore lights. It sure was a beautiful night, but it was such a lonely one.
It was almost none o’clock saturday morning when I got a call over the P.A. system for a visit. It surprised me so much I tipped over my freshly brewed coffee on the table, amid curses from the domino players seated there. I knew they had made am a mistake. I didn’t know anybody who’d come to visit me. I didn’t understand it and my quick pace slackened when I realized this. It was bound to be for someone else, so no sense hurrying to a disappointment. I begin feeling sorry for myself, thinking what a cruel laugh it was going to be when I got to the change room.
I asked who had come to see me, but the guard didn’t know, said I’d find out in the visiting room. I changed into visiting clothes and entered through a side door. I went to the receiving door and waited. Some white people were coming in, but they weren’t for me. As they met the convict they came to see, I turned to look around the place. It was my first time ever being there and I was curious. It was then that I felt a tug on my shirt sleeve and I looked down into two pairs of the prettiest brown eyes I’d seen in a long time. A young girl, about twenty-five years old was holding a little baby boy who I guessed to be about a year old. Both of them were looking up at me, she was smiling, but he was just curious.
“Are you Mr. Leroy Goddard?” asked the girl in a clear soft voice.
“Why yes, yes I am,” I stuttered. “But I’m afraid I don’t know—“.
“Oh, we’ve never met before, but I’ve always wanted too. I’ve heard so much about you.”
One hears that often when people meet new people. I thought, but for some reason I believed she meant it.
“I don’t understand—“
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She said, shifting the baby to her left hip. “Can we sit down, I’ll explain it to you.”
“”Sure,” I said, guiding her to a chair. She was a short girl, barely five feet tall, nicely shaped I thought, and her clear peach colored complexion was flawless. She obviously had Creole blood in her. The long satiny black hair indicated as much, or maybe it was Spanish or Indian. She put the boy in her lap and he continued staring at me. He was a curly-headed little tyke, dark coco-brown, and had a fine looking dace in a sturdy little body. As if making up his mind about something, he suddenly gurgled and flashed a drooly smile. She laughed. “This is Timothy.”
“Hello Timothy,” I said, wiggling my fingers at him.
“Okay, but I’d prefer to call you Mr. Goddard.”
“Well suit yourself, its alright either way.”
“Anyway, do you remember Cecil Duboce?”
“The Kid? Brown Gravy? Of course, how could I forget him. You—“
“Yes, I’m Fostine. This is our son.” She proudly held Timothy up for my inspection.
“He’s a fine boy Fostine, but where’s his father?”
“He’s outside. He asked me to see you alone first. He wanted us to talk a while cause he wanted me to tell you a few things, and find out something.”
“Sure,” I said, looking at the door, but I didn’t see the Kid. “How did you two get in here to see me? The rules prohibit anyone from doing that unless they were approved.”
“That was Gravy’s doing. He wrote the Warden and requested an interview concerning you, without you knowing it. Then he came up here and talked with the officials and they okayed us for the visits. You see, when you and Gravy was in the County Jail together ten years ago, he told me how you helped us. He never forgot that. He always said you extended the first real act of kindness he’d had since he’d been on his own. You know of course that his parents are dead now?”
“No—Well, I knew his father was dead, had been since he was five, but his Mo—“
“Yes, several years after he got out of jail on our case. Anyway, he strongly believes if you hadn’t advised him during that time ten years ago, he’d be a ex-convict, or still serving time now, and our lives would have been altogether different. So we both agree and feel you’re largely responsible for the turning point, and for putting Gravy on another track. So we wanted to do something for you.”
“Oh honey, that ain’t really necessary because it wasn’t me that changed things for you. You would have straightened things out anyway.”
“No, no. It was you alright, we know that. Why if he hadn’t did what you told him, there’s no telling what would have happened. I love Gravy, but my parents were trying to get me to do one thing, the state was trying for another, but Gravy got things straightened out for both of us. He did the right thing.”
“And what was that?”
“We did what you told him. We stayed together all during the period before the trial, and when I got scared, Gravy was there for me to lean on. I got the case dismissed against him, cause he really was innocent you know, but I had to do six months. Duke and Curly made their own deals, or plea bargains as they call it. Curly went back to San Quentin on a violation and Duke got a five-to-life.”
I shifted in my seat. “That ain’t much of a deal.”
“I know. They really wanted Duke, so they promised him county time to get him to change his plea to Guilty, then they crossed him.”
I shook my head in pity. “You only did six months?”
“Well actually, I got two years at Corona, but my lawyer got it reduced, I mean suspended, all except six months. When I first heard the sentence, I like to fainted, but Gravy was worth twice that much to me when I thought about it.