George T. Wilkerson was awarded Second Place in Memoir in the 2018 Prison Writing Contest.

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 13, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Break Out: Voices from the Inside.

Limp Gray Fur

“I need a break,” I thought as I sat amid a pile of papers, loose pages, and scraps that each held a fragment of a thought, a paragraph, a quote. I had accumulated bits and pieces of an idea like someone saving up to buy something, and I figured I might finally have enough for an essay. Or at least a poem. I got off my bunk and stepped out of my corner cell on the tier. Stretching my aching back and standing at the railing, I peered down into the boxy rectangular dayroom and noticed the two terminally ill men on my pod were sitting catercorner in their wheelchairs, facing in opposite directions as if they were about to race past each other. There is nowhere to go in here except in tight little circles, and anyway it was a race neither wanted to win.

I wondered what they were speaking about, I couldn’t remember ever seeing them interact at length before. Neither thought much of the other. I noted the way one gestured to a fresh surgical scar on his chest near his right armpit, where a doctor had carved out enough of a thick slab of malignant muscle to feed two people. The other nodded, then pantomimed something being threaded down his throat and into his lungs. He pressed a hand to his chest and breathed in a deep, exaggerated fashion to illustrate a point. The other’s head cocked at a severe angle, half-listening, half-resting, then gave a slanted nod.

I heard nothing, but nonetheless it made sense to me. Who of the 20 other men on our pod could commiserate with cancer besides them? They’d been wrestling with mysterious health issues for a year, but almost the same day two weeks prior both were diagnosed with stage four cancer and granted wheelchairs—they’d be needing them. Right then, their fatigue and breathlessness were still sporadic.

Three months have passed since that isolated incident where I saw Davy and Gary, both about sixty and toothless, bonding in their wheelchairs. Evidently, they’d compared notes, shook hands, and kept it moving. Davy is in the cell to my left. I have to walk past him countless times a day to go anywhere, because everything going on in here is on the other side of him: the cleaning supplies and top floor janitor’s closet; the showers; the lone flight of stairs leading down to the dayroom where the phone is, where the pod door is—through which I must exit to reach the rec yard, classes, meals. Gary has a downstairs cell; he’s not so in my face. It’s about proximity.

Several times each day as I pass Davy’s cell I’ll greet him or check whether he’s going to the next meal and wants me to push him to the chowhall in his wheelchair, which is parked beside the base of the stairs. It’s approximately 40 cane-supported shuffles from his cell to the end of the tier, then a 180 pivot right, and down 16 steps, upon each of which he plants first one foot and his cane, then sets the other foot and pauses briefly to balance. He repeats this step by step to the bottom (or top, if he’s going the other way). After such a harrowing 70-second journey demanding sweaty concentration, he is tired. For me, it’s 20 strides to the stairs, 6 or 7 springy leaps down, and I’m out the pod door in maybe 15 seconds, tops.

Usually, the “special diets” group is called for chow before us “regular diets,” so we generally know we’ll be going shortly thereafter. Davy will come on out and slowly make his way to his wheelchair to be ready to roll. After doing his part, he becomes a baton waiting for someone to carry him further. I tend to stay in my cell, wearing black shorts and gray t-shirt—our approved informal attire—until our call. While I attempt to keep my feet and fight to yank on my red jumpsuit (which must be worn anytime we leave the pod) hop-skipping down the tier, sometimes I’ll see the empty wheelchair, glance back, and discover Davy only beginning his leg, and I’ll think, “Dammit Dave, you knew we were about to go to chow.” If nobody else is waiting to push it, I’ll stand behind his wheelchair, resisting my impatience beneath my poker face and casually buttoning my jumpsuit as the rest of our pod, including Gary, stampedes to the mess hall. A couple times, I pretended I hadn’t seen him coming and tried to slide out the door, but he called, “GEORGE!” I’m not a very good Christian, but instantly guilt-stricken, I stopped and went back for him. Davy doesn’t have to jockey for line position. I do. Someone at the front will bring him a tray to his table about the time we enter the cafeteria. I’ll be at the back, and by the time I sit down with my tray most guys are done eating and the guards are scanning the crowd to see how soon they can clear us out for the next group.

I dislike lounging around the dayroom waiting to go anywhere. I consider it dead time. Wasted. Instead, I stay busy in my cell. I am neurotically productive, reading, studying, writing, exercising—doing something at all times, anything except nothing. Otherwise I get anxious. Sometimes I don’t even hear the call, but notice the sudden absence of dayroom noises, and the realization I might miss a meal jolts me out of my head and flings me out of my cell. Maybe Dave likes to wait till the last second too, or was using the toilet, suddenly changed his mind, or it’s that his lack of appetite swerved the other way.

Gary is always ready to go. He sits in his wheelchair in his doorway all day; sometimes all night, with a standard-issue navy blue woolen blanket draped across his shoulders and torso like a riding hood. Lately, when it’s time for medication call (7, 11 ,3, 7, 10), he’s taken to wheeling within inches of our pod’s Plexiglas sally-port door with a goofy expectant grin on as he sits there. He slouches so low, his back is folding into an N and his pale face is almost resting in his own lap. It’s difficult for me to witness this slowing, sinking, thinning, balding, wheezing process. Despite my being on death row these past 10 years, I’ve not been around anyone I knew was dying. Of the 150 or so men here when I arrived, 11 have died—12, I forgot the suicide—but none on my pod, and the last execution occurred right before I got here.

To be honest, I’m not sure how to take Gary, though I know he’s riddled with disease. Big blue-black bruises and ugly black moles appear on his flesh overnight and grow across his arms, chest, stomach. But back before he was formally diagnosed, he kept trying to get medical attention the prison disapproved. He told me how he’d fake or exaggerate symptoms, like walking down the hall to chow appearing ready to pass out, then sinking to the floor when he knew an officer was looking. They’d panic and rush him to the prison E.R. It was a way to take by force the attention he craved.

I hadn’t judged him as an attention-whore. When I arrived on death row, he was the second person to speak to me, and came across as sort of creepy, like the old man on the Family Guy cartoon who keeps inviting his neighbor’s teenaged son to his basement for Popsicles. He had a greasy demeanor combined with a soft voice and effeminate mannerisms that made me determine to minimize our interactions. That is, until I discovered we both were sentenced by the same county, and he asked whether I knew some woman. I did; she’s my aunt and his sister’s best friend. I sighed inwardly, because I knew my loyalty to family ties would keep me from altogether avoiding him without a real and valid reason. This, in part, is why I accepted his gift—a small bag of tobacco and commissary items—despite knowing the first rule upon entering prison is to never accept “gifts” from strangers; the other part is because I was 25 and quite fit, while he was at least twice my age and out of shape. I would beat him to death if he tried to punk me. However, when a younger, stronger man offered me a similar gift later that day, I refused it, “No thanks.” Years later, after we became friends, he asked me, “G, how come when you first got here you accepted Gary’s gift but not mine?” I explained the above and added, “But I wasn’t sure I could beat your ass.” He loves telling that story to everyone. Gary’s the only one he hasn’t told it to.

To be clear, Gary’s never said or done anything out of the way to me, nor have I heard he had to others. For whatever reason, either he kept away from most people, or they kept away from him, and everyone was okay with that. Now that he is legitimately diagnosed with cancer, he flaunts a vindicated attitude that says, “I told you I was dying—but you wouldn’t listen.” It’s true, he’d been saying it. As for his apparent degeneration, I’m unsure how much is contrived. Several weeks ago he “fell” in his cell and was carted to the hospital, where he was isolated in a room without TV access, nobody around to talk with, and no commissary since he has no money with which to purchase any. He begged to come back to death row. Before he fell, he had become a nearly unresponsive recluse, convincing us he could drop dead any second. Upon his return a few days ago, he said, “Man it was empty up there. Even though I don’t talk much, I at least like being at the edge of things where I can watch and hear people.” He’s hardly shut up and appears rejuvenated. His bleak but brief hospital stint secured him a snack bag to supplement his trays, more pain meds, an extra mattress.

Now he’s energetic and engaging, lively even, and it makes me hesitant to empathize, because I feel like I am being played at least to some degree. He isn’t suffering enough and needs to make up his mind as to whether he’s going to be sickly and feeble. If he stays with it, I can work at forgetting he’s probably faking some—and who can blame him? For most his life he’s been unpopular and kept from entering the inner circle, yet now that our compatriot is back, despite most of us believing only rumors of his death would return, suddenly several guys are doting on him, asking how they can help, what they can do, etc. His snack bag items (peanut butter, Ensure, cheese, saltines) provide bartering currency since we don’t typically have access to them, drawing even more attention. “They need me,” his benevolent gaze seems to say; his wheelchair feels ornate now, rather than the dilapidated plastic thing it was. He slurps it up like dirty nectar, an unwitting (or clever) social butterfly with skull-patterned wings who decided he loved people after all. Perhaps imminent death empowers one with graciousness.

Every day while Gary was gone, Davy asked after him: He wanted to relocate to Gary’s downstairs cell if Gary wasn’t returning. But Gary did return, bigger than ever—if 40 pounds lighter.

Be that as it may, I see their cancer as a physical silhouette that smooshes these men a little closer to the earth each night, while simultaneously insinuating itself into every thought and in-between each man’s interactions with the rest of us, either elbowing people away like it does for Davy, or putting people in sympathetic headlocks like it does for Gary. Both men have told me they just want to be as comfortable as possible till they die, which is the most they can hope for; if their cancers had been caught a year ago . . . well, it’s too late for thoughts like those. For Gary, pain meds, attention, and donations of coffee, cookies, and candy is enough. I’m still trying to figure out what comfort looks like to Davy.


Davy’s skin has turned cartoonish, a Bart Simpson yellow, and his right leg is a caricature of what it was, having ballooned in proportion. I can’t remember how many children Davy told me he has, or whether they were boys or girls, but I imagine he would be surprised to see how much he favors that drawing of himself that one of his kids did in first grade. Or perhaps it’s my own inexperienced elementary understanding of cancer’s ravages seeking to draw conclusions about what I’m feeling and seeing. I am but sketching a barely recognizable outline in two-dimensional space, and clumsily applying thick, waxy primary colors. Although I am a little embarrassed by how inadequate I know I am in the face of something so complex, I am comforted by the fact my attempt to create a likeness of my friends comes from a pure place: I don’t want to become indifferent to their suffering, nor forget the beauties and uglies of it.

Most days, Dave simply props himself on his bunk like a neglected teddy bear, hugging a pillow to his abdomen and groaning because a low-grade flame that slow roasts his nerve endings is barely dulled by morphine. Right now a herniated disc is pinched against my sciatic nerve. If I blow my nose, the spasmodic squeeze of my core muscles grinds the two together to send excruciating waves of reverberating pain rippling down my left leg, as if the nerve is an electric guitar string being plucked. I awoke the other night, still half-asleep, and the pain was so all-consuming I convinced myself I was dead and in hell. Knowing I deserved it reinforced the delusion. The next day when I explained to Davy why he may have heard me hollering at two in the morning, he deadpanned, “Now imagine that all over you all the time.” I can’t process that much pain. I can’t fathom it. The thought alone triggers sensory overload.

Davy has personality. He’s one of those people you either love or hate the moment you meet him. He has a no-holds-barred, middle-fingers-in-the-air attitude that is authentic and abrasive. He is five feet tall; he carries himself as if twice that. If you can look past his perpetual asshole persona, you’d find an asshole still. If he doesn’t like you, he’ll tell you plainly, “I don’t like you. Get the hell away from me,” in a gravelly voice cigarettes shredded long ago.

I like the guy. Of course, I don’t have baby skin either. When I greet him, I say “Hey Little Fella,” in a tone I’d use on a five-year-old. It’s my way of verbally placing a palm on his forehead while his short arms swing futilely at my body. Pain intensifies his grumpiness, keeps him irritable and snappy. In the medication line, a buddy of mine named Rabbit who’s on another pod and hadn’t been around Davy in awhile asked him, “Dave, you doing alright?” Dave snarled, “Hell no I ain’t alright. I’m dying. What kind of dumbass question is that?” On my way to class, I happened by Rabbit as he headed back to his pod. I looked at his scrunched brow and asked, “What’s wrong with you?” After he told me what transpired, I explained, “Well, think about it. He hears that question over and over again. He is in constant pain. I know you meant well, but he’s listening to your words, not your heart. All he hears is you asking him a question you already know the answer to: He is not okay, and won’t be ever again. The rest of his life is suffering. Period. It only gets worse from here, not better.” He nodded, clearly saddened and feeling helpless. His alleged crimes aside, Rabbit’s a sensitive soul.

To some people, Gary and Dave are walking corpses stinking up the place, slowing up traffic in the hallways with their wheelchairs, so they dodge away from them or speed past them through doorways. Others are opportunistic and offer to get their tray for them. Davy told me how one guy would walk to the table carrying a tray in each hand, obviously measuring and weighing each. Dave always got handed the one with the smaller piece of cake. I saw another guy bend down at the serving window and holler in to the guard, “I need to grab a tray for the guy in the wheelchair too,” then take both trays to his own table and combine them quickly so he could ditch the empty into the dishpit window before a guard entered our side to monitor the line.

Most guys on our pod try to stay out of Dave’s way so as to not make things worse for him, which is the best they can do to help him—and themselves by avoiding his scorching tongue. At least Gary is approachable and will accept a token of compassion—a honey bun, packet of Kool-Aid, conversation—to help ease our collective discomfort of being useless to stop him shriveling into a raisin. It occurred to me I seldom saw Dave call his family anymore, where three months ago I had to beat him to the phone. I realize it’s cruel for us to dissociate from Dave, especially considering I’m sure he’s trapped in one of those shitty predicaments where we want and need others around, yet can’t help shoving them away.

I feel like, as a Christian, I ought to know how to handle someone dying. But I don’t. It’s like I’m staring at a complicated math problem, and my answer will determine whether I pass or fail—and being half-Korean, I ought to be good at math (but I’m not). So, I asked someone who does know the answer. I prayed.

Last week, seated in a chair in his doorway, Davy was watching our pod’s TV, which is mounted high up on a wall across our dayroom. I stepped out of my cell to stretch my aching back, and about then a woman on TV spat in a man’s face. Dave cringed and barked, “That’s fucking disgusting!” I looked back at him over my left shoulder, and he twisted to direct his attention to me, “Did you see that? I can’t stand someone spitting on someone else. It’s nasty. I’d rather you slap me than spit on me. I was on a date one time with this girl whose ex-boyfriend popped up. They started arguing and she spit in his face like that. I ended it right there . . . ” he said, his bony finger jabbing toward the memory the TV recalled. I told him about an abusive ex-girlfriend I had. She was a slapper. Knowing I wouldn’t hit her back, she liked to slap me when she got angry (or sometimes when horny). Smitten in lust with her, I tolerated it. This led Dave to share a story about a girlfriend who got mad at him because he didn’t get mad at her when she told him she had cheated on him. Which led me to describe the time I got slit from wrist to elbow with a rusty steak knife and had to escape the hospital because my girlfriend jokingly remarked to the intake nurse that I had tried to kill myself for her—prompting the doctor to have guards posted outside my room while a shrink tried to have me committed . . . We chuckled over the stupid things we did for women, ribbed each other’s idiocy. For half an hour, cancer left the room so two guys could have a pissing contest, trying to one-up each other with the most dramatic story inspired by true events.

Was this the answer to my prayer, I wondered. A way to comfort Dave, though we would never physically touch? I thought, I could spend time with him, laugh with him, let him just be one of the guys. For the past week, I’ve been trying to stage another “unplanned” interaction. Something about it struck me as a tender affectionate gesture—and I winced. It’s as if I got a whiff of the desperate neediness his sickness shrouds him in, or it was the reality of his impending death that jabbed a cold finger into my chest. Whatever it was, some primitive part of me flinches against it. I admit, emotional sensitivity has never been my strong point. Intellectually, I am aware of others’ emotional states, but it takes vulnerability to allow oneself to connect to others. Maybe it’s that being vulnerable with another man seems too intimate to me, and I equate intimacy with another man as being somewhat dangerous, since I’ve only ever really connected with women on an emotional level because I see men as threats. Not to mention I’m in prison, where any sort of tenderness is viewed as weakness, or homosexual in nature. Something is making me retreat.

Back in 2002, when I was 21, my cat got hit by a car. Though it had no visible injuries, clearly it was broken and dead, its abandoned carcass nothing but a lump of plush gray fur. My girlfriend sobbed as I walked over to pick up what to us was our son. As soon as my fingers touched the limp gray fur I had loved petting, they recoiled. Some atavistic component had activated within me. When I tried again to touch it, my fingers bounced off an invisible forcefield I unknowingly erected around myself. It was almost comical how I repeatedly spread my hand out only to have it ricochet to the side before touching my dead cat. I’d curse myself under my breath, “Man the fuck up!” It didn’t help. My girlfriend whined, “Baby, we have to get him out of the road!“ No shit. But what I said was, “I know, I KNOW—but I can’t touch him! I don’t know why. Why don’t you try?”

“You’re supposed to be the man, not me,” she shot back. I was willing to leave him lying right there. She nearly slapped me when I suggested it. Eventually I had to poke at Smoky with a stick to maneuver him onto an old blanket which would become his burial clothes. My equally squeamish girIfriend stood by with hands on hips, indignant, as I bundled Smoky up and tied the blanket to the stick’s tip, making a bindlestick like cartoon runaways and hoboes laid over a shoulder to transport their few precious belongings, except I carried the thing I was running away from at arm’s length in front of me to a spot in the yard where I intended to bury it.

I don’t want to merely poke at Dave to maneuver him to a well-worn area in which I can wrap him to make myself more comfortable. But how do I overcome my emotional aversion? I want to be able to touch death with him, help him carry it with bare hands. I want to at least show, “Hey, I’m with you, Bruh. This shit stinks, and it’s messy and revulsive, but I’m with you.” I don’t know if it actually matters to him. We don’t speak about our feelings.

I don’t know whether it’s Dave I’m trying to help, or that I’m being opportunistic by trying to use Dave as a pretext to help myself, to convince myself that I can be selfless, that I’m more compassionate now, that I’ve changed—that I’m no longer the scared little boy who entered prison and was quick to use his fists to fight his battles, but am now the man of God I claim to be (though definitely no angel) who’s quicker to forgive than fight though no less scared sometimes. Like now. Maybe I’m scared to find out I haven’t changed all that much.

All I know for sure is that something in me is telling me not to recoil, but to stand still and bear it. Perhaps it’s that I know one day I’ll die too. Cancer? Heart attack? Execution? Shank? If so, then this is training for me, a way for me to face my own demise and tell myself with confidence and courage: “Okay, George, man up. You’ve already been through this. It stinks, it’s messy and gross. But quit crying and grab this thing with your bare hands. You don’t have to flinch. You can stand still and bear it.”

There’s a certain dignity in that, I think.