“You’re thinking of stabbing a guy because you think he may be plotting to stab you,” Goodman said with a slightly mocking incredulity. “What if you’re wrong?”

“What if I’m not?” the convict replied.

“Why don’t you go talk to him, look him in the eye, see what’s up?” Goodman suggested.

“Because if he is looking to do me, he’ll just tell me what he thinks I want to hear, put me to sleep,” the convict said. “I’ve done that myself, shake a guy’s hand and tell him, ‘No problem, man,’ and because that’s what he wants to hear, he goes to sleep. Besides that would be tipping my hand.”

They were talking quietly in the convict’s cell amid the greater noise of the cellblock, which roared and ebbed with no logic but the madness of men and steel and chaos. The convict often wished, as he lay in his bunk listening to it, that the politicians and judges and newspaper editors could experience that noise, could spend even just one night hearing it. He’d imagine their faces as they registered its effects—first, just the plain shock of its violent and reverberative force in the cellblock’s enclosure; then sickening fear at the threat presented by its utter alienation; then revulsion at the vicious inanity of its rage and indecency. Yeah, motherfucker.

“Do you hear that?” he’d picture himself as King then.

“Do you know what that is? That’s the sound of men who’ve grown to rage at their powerlessness in obsessive, repetitive behaviors. It’s the sound of their sickness, and of the madness of putting all that sickness together in one place for years. Justice may be a noble sounding word in court and in the papers, but this is the real sound of it, madness and the death of our humanity, the sound of it killing us.”

“Why’re you making it so complicated?” Goodman asked.

“I’m not making it complicated, it was already like that when I got here,” the convict answered. “I’m just trying to make it out of here alive.”

“And if you get caught for doing him, how will you make it out then?” Goodman challenged.

“Better than him catching me sleeping,” the convict replied.

“Jesus, you’ve got this guy killing you and you don’t even know if he has a beef with you!” Goodman exclaimed.

“I know. It’s crazy,” the convict conceded, admitting what they both sensed, and what by the magic of words and language they intuitively sought to influence—the larger reality’s underlying potentiality, its becoming.

“Well then look at it in the light of reason,” Goodman said.

“This guy is dangerous,” the convict said, “pure-d-fucking dangerous. That’s gonna be my reasoning. He’s killed before, and I have to keep that fact square in front of me.”

He sat quietly in the moment, letting the weight of it settle and realize in him. He would proceed by a logic whose instinctive processes were informed by his years in prison, and whose principles he had taken to calling, “black hole rules”.

He had come out with the term one day as he discussed philosophy with a guy named Dex in the prison yard. Dex had studied and was knowledgeable of philosophy, and they were talking about the relevance of different philosophies to prison life.

“How many philosophers you know of ever did prison time?” the convict had asked.

“You don’t have to go to hell to know it’s hot,” Dex had answered.

“You do if you want to know what it’s like to burn,” the convict rejoined.

“I don’t have to burn to know I don’t want to burn,” Dex argued. “Personal experience is not a prerequisite of philosophical relevance or higher reasoning. Reasoning is, after all, an exercise in abstraction.”

The convict thought for a moment. “Okay, smart ass,” he said. “You got me there. But still, knowing that you don’t want to burn doesn’t establish relevance to the state of burning. But let me ask you something, Dex. How different is knowing what it’s like to live here from what you thought you knew about prison before you got here? Way different, right?”

“Sure it is,” Dex agreed.

“Entirely different?”

“Yeah, I’d say so.”

“We’re in a whole other world with its own rules, right?” the convict pressed.

“Pretty much,” Dex agreed more carefully, minding the tack.

“Do you know what a black hole is, Dex?” the convict asked.

Dex looked at him askance. “A black hole? You mean like in space?”

“Yeah, a black hole,” the convict said.

“It’s some kind of hole in space,” Dex answered.

“It’s a star that no longer shines because it burned up all its fuel and collapsed in on itself,” the convict corrected.

“And it’s so dense that its gravity pulls anything that passes too close into it—dust, gas, other stars, even light. Think about that—a force so strong that it even grabs light and pulls it in. That’s why they’re called black holes, and why we can’t see them, because not even light can escape them.”

“If we can’t see them, how do we know they’re there?” Dex asked.

“By the effect they have on other objects in space around them. That we can see.”

“You need some new books to read, Joe,” Dex said.

“What happens inside black holes, though, is one of the biggest mysteries in the universe,” the convict went on, undeterred. “Scientists theorize that at their center there’s a mass of infinite density, called a singularity.”

“A what?”

“A singularity.”

“Sing-u-larity.” Dex pronounced it slowly, sampling the word’s phonetic articulation. “What an elegant word. It’s poetic.”

“It’s a poetic word,” the convict agreed, “but it gives you an idea of what they think may happen in there. Everything gets pulled down into this super-dense mass, to a oneness, or singularity. At least that’s the theory. The only thing they’re fairly sure of is that physical reality as we know it gets all twisted up in there, the laws of physics. What that reality is, ultimately, they don’t know. Only that it has to be really warped.”

“Like in here,” Dex concluded.

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying,” the convict affirmed.

“We live in a warped reality in here, no? A black hole, with black hole rules. And they can’t see us because no light escapes.”

“How do you mean?”

“They chuck us in here and don’t see us anymore. Our light is gone, into here. And as we’re dehumanized over time, our light goes deeper into us, too, and can’t escape. What did Christ say? ‘If the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!’ And what’s darker than us in these places?”

Dex was struck by the analogy, and was reminded that the convict regarded Jesus as the greatest philosopher who had ever lived, and also as the first great psychologist. They were in agreement on Jesus’ profound human insight, and Dex thought Jesus’ speech very poetical and beautiful.

“Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world,’” Dex cited.

“He is the light of the world,” the convict said, “and yet even He couldn’t escape it.”

“Escape what?” Dex asked. “Death?”

“No. He defeated death, according to the gospels. I mean revenge. The revenge of those he offended, the Pharisees. And that’s all these places are, the revenge of those we offend. You know it, I know it, and they know it, too, and everything else is a damned lie. For all their talk of justice, they know in their heart of hearts that to do this to us is sicker in its way than we are, because they know better and do it anyway, and so theirs is the greater sin. Jesus is the light of the world, and they claim to love His light, only not in here, and not in us. They’re killing us in here, Dex, and no one cares. No light escapes, man. No light escapes.”

“I know, Joe,” said Dex. “I know.”


“Okay, you know this guy is dangerous,” Goodman said.

“That’s a fact. But you don’t know for sure if he’s gunning for you, either. That’s another fact. And what about this—what if he’s of the same mind as you? What if he’s putting himself under the same pressure because he’s not sure what you’re thinking? Then you have two guys looking to do each other because they don’t know what the other guy might be planning. You’d think they would just go and talk to each other.”

“I know,” said the convict. “It seems so simple. But it’s wishful thinking. That’s what pressure does to you.”

“What if he’s trying to see a way out, too?” Goodman asked. “Isn’t there some way you can try and get an idea of what he’s thinking? What about a third party? Someone to approach him and feel him out. Indirectly. Someone you trust, and who he’ll talk to. It’s not a done deal, nothing’s happened yet. You can still try to get a handle on this.”

“That’s a thought,” the convict said.

“He’s a human being,” Goodman said, “just like you. He doesn’t want to just throw his life away, either, no matter how dangerous he is.”

“You can’t speak for him,” the convict warned. “You don’t know what he’s thinking. He may be creeping up on me right now, for all I know.”

“And he may be in his cell, thinking just like you, looking for a way out of this without violence,” Goodman reasoned. “Or he could be listening to his radio and writing a letter, not even thinking of you.”

“True,” said the convict.

“Look how far you’ve come, you and all the guys like you,” Goodman pleaded. “How do you endure this for years? Why do you endure it? Because somewhere in that convict personality there’s still decency and goodness, a part of you that wants to get out and live like a human being again, have some peace in your life. That’s what this is all about, trying to make it through this dehumanizing insanity and get out again. Otherwise you’d have given up on it long ago.”

The convict was quiet, expectant, letting Goodman’s reasoning hold sway, needing its argument, wanting its persuasion.

“Yeah, this is a black hole, and black hole rules don’t care about decency and fairness; a guy’ll take your fairness and sneak up on you and stab you to death with it. So what’s new about that? Nothing. It’s about staying alive and always has been, no matter what you call it, black hole rules, the convict code, whatever. And you have. You’ve survived all this time, and there’s a certain nobility in that, a kind of beauty and majesty of suffering. They won’t give you any medals for it, maybe a pat on the back to go with your criminal record when you leave; but in the end survival is its own reward, and you can pretty much take or leave everything else.”

“I’ve been through this hundreds of times, it seems,” the convict said wearily. “I feel like I’m a thousand years old inside. My soul is ancient.”

“You’ve got to try to get a handle on this,” Goodman pleaded urgently, “exert some control, man. If you take one extreme and he takes the other, no one’s in control and you’re gonna crash. Try to find some balance, steer this thing. You have to try, Joe. You have to. It’s your life either way. You can’t just say ‘fuck it’ and let it end up where it will. Over what, some perceived disrespect and a little hostile eye contact?”

“But how many beefs over the years have started over something like that?” the convict asked. “Too many for me to use that reasoning. It’s not how it started that matters now, anyway. It’s how it’s going to end.”

“But that’s if there’s even a beef,” Goodman stressed, “and that’s the whole point. What have you been sitting here discussing, and what do you know? That you’ve come through all this because you want to live, not die in here. That you don’t know if this guy has a beef with you or not. That you have to try and find out first. You know you have to at least try.”

The convict was silent for a long moment, then sighed deeply. He would do it. He would send someone to try and feel the other guy out, and he knew just the man to send—Art Sweeney. He trusted Art implicitly, and Art got along with the guy in question. He would go and see him about it right away, before the next chow call.

With the decision made he relaxed some, and even brightened at the prospect of it turning out to be nothing after all. The shank in his pants waistband had been there all day, a constant reminder that he was armed, and he stopped now, deliberating if he should carry it down the tier with him to talk to Art.

“It’ll be alright,” Goodman assured him. “You’ve been through this before, you know what you’re doing. Just handle it.”

The other guy had meanwhile crept up outside the convict’s cell, hands in his pockets to conceal the shank taped in the palm of each one, super alert. He had heard someone talking and stopped, trying to hear, but couldn’t be sure in the cellblock’s noise. He thought to turn and go back down the tier the way he came, but instead decided to stroll by casually, as though on some other business, and try to glimpse who was in the cell with the convict. As he did so he saw the convict was alone in the cell, apparently tucking in his bed. He quickly pulled the door open and rushed in.

The convict, his right hand under his mattress, looked up and said, “Shit.”