Just a few miles from the courthouse the two Durham County deputies stopped at a diner and bought me a hamburger and milkshake, and from there the four-hour ride in their backseat was made almost pleasant by the rock-n-roll music they played on the radio. But there was no mistaking where they were taking me.
Located high in the Blue Ridge Mountains east of Asheville, the sprawling Juvenile Evaluation Center was the corpse of a World War II army hospital that had been resuscitated for a second life as a state reformatory. Its dozen or so white-washed buildings were built on railroad ties and had the neglected look of a long abandoned movie set, rust streaking from every nail. Inside the building out front marked “Office”, the deputies handed my commitment papers to a military type with a jaw full of soggy cigar and a real clear dislike for the boys with “rabbit” in their blood. The burned-in-wood nameplate on his door said he was the “Superintendent”.
“I see he likes to run off …” He was re-lighting the cigar as he read, his eyes never lifting from the papers placing me in his custody. Eventually he signed one of them, handed it back to the deputies and added, “We’ll break him of that.”
I looked out the window behind his desk, didn’t see any razor wire between me and those nearby mountains and felt his confidence was somewhat misplaced. Within a few minutes of the deputies’ departure, a butt-ugly blonde in a nurse’s uniform emerged from the “infirmary” down the hall and called me in to perform the medical aspect of the admissions process—a routine examination that began with a bunch of needles, and ended with me naked on a table and her combing my head and pubic hairs for lice. I was red with embarrassment from the erection that sprang up from her touch, but there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop it. It was clear evidence of the autonomy of the fifteen-year-old penis.
After the inspection I was issued an armful of denim, a toothbrush, and Bible, then escorted down the long covered bridge-like corridor that connected all the former hospital wards to the one called “Parish Cottage”. There I was turned over to the “cottage counselor” on duty—another military type who wrote my name on a chalkboard outside his office, then launched right into the rules and regulations. He told me his name was Mr. George, and then said “reveille” was at 5:00 a.m., breakfast was precisely 15 minutes later (in the dining hall at the distant end of that real long corridor), then school classes began at 6:30 a.m. and ended at 3:00 p.m. After school there was another hike to the dining hall for the second and (final) meal of the day, then “yard call” would be held (between the cottages) till 6:00 p.m. sharp.
“Cursing, fighting, and unpolished boots keep the latrine clean,” he said, “and if you’ve got any travel plans involving darkness and those mountains out there, you’ll need to pack a snakebite kit and plenty of bear repellent.” I tried to sell him some innocence, but he wasn’t in the market. He already knew I was a two-time runaway and that the number two is almost always followed by the number three.
“And by the way,” he added as he began to acquaint me with the cottage, my small metal locker and bunk, “if you decide to depart us, you’ll be traveling in your drawers, and bare feet. Shoes and all other clothing are collected at shower time and locked away till reveille.” And then just in case that and the local wildlife hadn’t given me pause, he pointed out it was mid-November and getting awful close to the first big snow.
I was beginning to understand the absence of the fence.
Later that afternoon the 25 other boys (ages 12-15) returned from the reading and writing classes, and woodworking shop where I’d soon be learning the regionally relevant craft of burning names into pine boards. They were a motley mix of the mean and mental, and the reasons they were there ran the gamut from petty theft to patricide. One had removed the head of a neighbor’s cocker spaniel with a chainsaw; another had torched his school; and a boy everybody called “Freddy the Freak” they said had raped his own mother. Most, however, were just mild to moderate misfits from broken homes like me and mine, and soon I made friends with one, a car theft by the name of Nick Mallory. He was from the nearby town of North Wilksboro, and had an older brother who had just been released from Central Prison in Raleigh and gone to work for one of the tobacco companies in my hometown of Durham. He was from a family of illegal distillers and dirt track racers, and had a cousin who had actually been in the ’58 classic Thunder Road.
Over the next few weeks as we naturally drew closer he taught me about hotrods and moonshine, and I regaled him with my vast experiences as an aimless runaway, and everything I knew about girls—which wasn’t much, and if written down might very well have fit in the margins of a postage stamp. We stuck together like brothers, laughed at each other’s jokes and did all we could do to forget where we were—which as much as possible included maintaining a safe distance from the mental cases.
But then, as Mr. George had promised, came the snow. And with the sub-zero temperatures of high elevation that arrived with it came the end of “yard call”, and the beginning of a winter-long confinement to the narrow and steam-heated wards, where bunk beds ate up floor space like the bench seats in a school bus. There was a checkerboard with missing checkers, a couple decks of dog-eared cards, and a set of plastic weights filled with cement. And of course there was always an old Playboy floating around and lots of masturbation. But to the mental cases none of these things had the slightest appeal. Pretty soon the narrow walls were closing in, the demons were screaming in their heads, and something had to give. They started carving themselves with broken bottles and eating things such as deodorant sticks and crushed light bulbs, just to see what would happen. One boy sprayed a can of Right Guard down his throat, and then during the two weeks he spent in intensive care got to meet the famous evangelist Billy Graham, who lived in the nearby town of Montreat. But that sort of treatment was rare. Most were just taken to see the butt-ugly blonde in the infirmary and got pumped with tranquilizers. One of them, a boy named Allen Foy, from Winston-Salem, made the trip twice in one week. But unlike the others who were slowed to the speed of furniture, he went the other way and finally just bolted right out into the snow. Helter Skelter. It happened the day after Christmas, shortly after dark. He had been pacing the floor between the bunks since shower time, mumbling something about the voices in his head, threatening to run. Nick and I were ignoring him, figured he was merely campaigning for more drugs. Mr. George, sitting in his office, seemed to be thinking the same. But then after around an hour when I guess he’d had enough of the spectacle, Mr. George stepped in his doorway and yelled, “For God’s sake, one ‘a ya’ll just open the door, let the stupid son of a bitch go.”
So someone did. And the next thing we all knew Foy was ripping off his t-shirt and plowing headlong into the knee-deep snow, making his getaway. At first we were all watching from the doorway and laughing, counting off the seconds we figured it would take for the icy air and snow to freeze his bare feet and skin, just waiting for better judgment to prevail. But it never did. He just plowed right on past the hemlocks at the edge of the yard and kept right on going until finally the darkness just sponged him up like a drop of water. Eventually Mr. George closed the door and we all re-gathered at the window. Five minutes later turned to ten, and finally Mr. George swallowed his part of the disbelief and made the necessary call to the superintendent. An hour later a local sheriff’s deputy appeared at the same door with the rest of the story. After making it more than a mile down the mountain, Foy had apparently mistaken a snow covered pond for solid ground and fallen through the ice. Fortunately for him the pond was next door to a small church, and the preacher had been there to hear his screams.
“Yeah, the Lord was sure looking out for that one,” said the deputy as he was leaving. “No two ways about it.” And it must’ve been so, because after a few days in the infirmary Foy was brought back with only minor frostbite to his fingers and toes, and the very first thing he did was open his Bible and start reading.
But the Lord was a busy man. Ten years later in another hopeless escape attempt, Foy would grab hold of an innocent looking wire on one of the walls around Central Prison in Raleigh and discover it charged with enough voltage to roast an elephant.
One morning in early February, Nick was awoken before dawn and told he was transferring to the Stonewall Jackson school for boys near Charlotte. He had been there at the Center one month longer than I had, and by then he and I had figured out on our own what no one would tell us, which was that the J.E.C. wasn’t a final destination for any of us, and merely a place where things such as potential for violence, homosexuality, and suicide were identified before placement in one of the state’s other more permanent facilities. At the time there were only three; Stonewall Jackson near Charlotte; Dillon near Durham; and Cameron Morrison just north of Rockingham. Invariably, the whites like Nick and I went to Jackson, the mental cases were all destined for Dillon, and the blacks, usually but not always, were taken to Morrison. Though the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was fifteen years old, and North Carolina legislators had long since tossed in the towel and integrated its public schools, the same wasn’t entirely the case at its reformatories. The J.E.C., Jackson, and Dillon had all eventually been integrated—but not Cameron Morrison. It had opened in the early 50’s as the states only all-black reformatory (staff as well as inmates) and because, politically, the court-ordered desegregation was more about opening white institutions to blacks (and not the other way around) it had remained that way ever since. And so naturally, I expected to see Nick again at Stonewall Jackson, in about a month.
Boy was I in for a surprise. In the last day of March, I was awoken by Mr. George and told I was being transferred to Cameron Morrison—the all-black reform school down near Rockingham. He watched the fear leap into my eyes, and before the questions could form on my lips he said that all he knew and could tell me was that, in the final surrender to desegregation, the people in Raleigh had decided to begin assimilating whites into Morrison, and that I’d been selected to be in the first group—of three. This “assimilation”, I would later learn, was to take place at monthly intervals (as bed space became available) and would continue until the population there reached a politically acceptable level of forty percent. Meaning that for at least the next thirty days, the two others and I would be the only whites in a very dark sea of six hundred, a place where getting back at “Whitey” would almost certainly be a sport without rules.
The facts were inescapable. Jim Crow and the church bombing in Alabama would be as fresh in their minds as the funeral of Martin Luther King.… We were going to be about as welcome as the Ku Klux Klan. A couple hours later the three of us were handcuffed together, put in a van, and driven across the state in stomach-knotted silence to the eastern sand hills between Raleigh and Rockingham, to a small and uninviting cluster of brick buildings that suddenly appeared from out of the miles of tall pines and peanut fields, and at first seemed more like a very misplaced housing project—the sort of place where cars are cannibalized in the streets and arguments are settled with switchblades.
As he was turning in, the driver of the van spat a stream of tobacco juice out the window, then looked up in the rear view mirror and said to us, “Ya’ll boys be strong down here, now. These niggers give you any trouble you just grab whatever’s close and knock the hell out of ’em … you hear?”
He was talking to himself. Just then we were getting our first look at some of the individuals to which he was referring, and trying to swallow the baseballs lodged in our throats. Shirtless and knife-scarred and strutting around with afro-picks in their hair, they didn’t impress us as the type who would respond well to being knocked down by a white boy. Sitting next to me a boy named Tommy Williams from Lattimore Cottage elbowed me and in a very small voice said, “We’re in trouble.”
“Yeah …” I said back to him, reading the real readable looks on their faces as they began to spot us, “we’re dead.” By the time the van reached the administration building several of them were already there to greet us.
“There they is,” they pointed and yelled from around us as we emerged. “Look at ’im. Hey cracker, me and you on that pussy. You mine, boy. You hear me, you all mine!”
Inside the administration building the resentment wore a bitter disguise, but was no less recognizable. It began with our introduction to a small and polio-hobbled man by the name of Mr. Fox who immediately strip searched us and shoved a finger up our rectums to check for automatic weapons—and ended with our hair on the floor and him pointing us across the grassless compound to three dormitories, and warning, “I catch you bunched up someplace, you’ll be wishin’ your mama had been on birth control.”
Outside the building we found the welcoming committee reduced to a single boy of around ten who was sweeping the sidewalks. I ran a real shaky hand over my bald head, said a reluctant “so long” to the other two and started toward the building to which I had been assigned, the “Pamlico” dorm.
“So where they putcha?” the sweeper stopped to ask as I passed, almost friendly.
I told him.
“Ah, you’ll be alright,” he said, “ain’t nobody gonna fuck witcha.”
Less than five minutes later my head was bleeding from a steel-toed boot, airborne and anonymous.
“Alright, cut that out,” said the counselor on duty just inside Pamlico dorm’s front door, a coal-black butterball who wouldn’t be distracted from the ball game on his little black-and-white TV. He tossed me a roll of toilet paper for the blood. “Brame, right?”
“Yes sir,” I answered and was looking around, expecting the other boot. He reached behind him for a bedroll, dropped it on his desk between us and pointed me up the stairs, scared shitless, and indescribably alone. Up on the second floor, bunk #62 wasn’t very difficult to locate. Four of my new friends were standing around it, pissing on the mattress. I remember looking back down the steps and hearing the counselor shouting at the television. There was a lot of laughter that wasn’t coming from me, and the next thing I knew I was pinned to the wall behind me and being punched in the gut. “We’re fuckin’ you tonight, white boy,” said the biggest of the four. “They’s gonna be shit on our dicks or blood on our blades—up to you which one.” One of the others picked up my bedroll from the floor and tossed it on the piss-soaked mattress. Then like a gang from the projects they just swaggered down the stairs, taking with them the measly couple bars of soap and tube of toothpaste I’d had under my arm, my only possessions. I picked myself up, looked around at the dozen or so witnesses with the opposite of sympathy in their eyes. Suddenly the van driver’s advice didn’t seem so silly.
“You gonna give up the booty white boy?” one of them yelled.
I didn’t answer. I just walked over to a nearby mop closet, grabbed up a wooden toilet brush and snapped it in two, tucked the sharpest piece down my pants, and didn’t try to hide it. “Blood on our blades” meant they had knives. They would be expecting me to bend over at just the sight of them, and when instead I whipped out the toilet brush and plunged it into the biggest one, the others would scatter like cockroaches and that would be the end of it. I hoped.
The witnesses backed off and gave me some room. For now. I flipped the urine-soaked mattress over and tied on the sheet. Then I just sat down on the edge and readied myself for the fight. A couple hours dragged by. It started raining outside. Eventually the counselor yelled out dinner call. I didn’t budge and inch. Another half an hour or so passed, and then some of the hundred and some boys in the dorm began to return and take showers. The others went out the basketball courts, and then just before dark the call went out for lock down and they poured in, loud, wet, and sweaty.
“Shower time, honky,” one of them said to me as he walked nearby, on his way in. He had a towel around his waist, and was showing me the hard-on he had under it. I ignored him, kept my eyes on the stairwell. But the gang of four never returned. After an hour or thereabout the “lights out” was yelled and the stairwell door was shut. And locked. I looked around the room at all the descendants of slaves, in their various stages of near-naked, some of the keliod knife scars on their faces, arms and backs could’ve been passed for whip marks. They were still taunting me like a captured Klansman, but also still keeping their distance. For now. I figured the other four had been told of the broken toilet brush and would now wait and catch me someplace else. Or perhaps they had delegated the deed to the pervert in the towel.…
When the lights finally went out, I climbed under the blanket, fully clothed, shoes and all. I wrapped my hand around the toilet brush, and kept it at the ready. The talking and taunting went on for another hour. And meanwhile I could hear masturbating, and soon a wet wad of toilet paper landed next to my bunk. That was followed by more laughter and talk of my “pretty white ass”, but then eventually there was silence. Snoring. Still, I never dared to shut my eyes. I just lay there in the dark all night, my finger on the trigger. Eight hours later and the moment those overhead lights came back on and the door was unlocked, I returned the toilet brush to my waistband and wasted no time getting down the steps. I was tired of being scared and waiting for the next attack, and desperately needed to talk with a friend, and the closest I had to one was the boy next to me in the van, Tommy Williams.
Hoping to hook up with him in the chow hall, on my way out the door I spotted two of the four boys in the downstairs bathroom, brushing their teeth. They were only a few feet from the spot where I’d been hit with the boot, and suddenly the reason they hadn’t come at me the night before was clear. They were all four assigned to the lower floor and, warned that I was armed, they had merely postponed their plans, until they could get the drop on me.
About fifty yards across the sandy compound, the breakfast line snaked into the chow hall. Close to the rear Tommy stood out like the creme filling in an Oreo. He quickly spotted me and broke line.
“What happened to you last night?” His voice was hushed and panicky. “I was looking for you at dinner.”
I pulled him away and showed him the toilet brush, started to tell him, but before I could even get out the incident with the boot, he cut me off with the news of the other boy in the van. “Man, they jammed a mop handle up his ass! Jumped him as soon as he hit the dorm,” he said. “Must’ve been ten of ’em. I saw ’em chasing him, but there was nothing he could do. Hell, they jumped me too!”
“Well where is he now?” I was thinking that we had to help him, that we had to stick together—to hell with the cripple’s crap about us bunching up. I followed Tommy’s eyes over to the Albermarle dorm, where it had happened.
He said, “I heard they took him to some hospital over in Rockingham.” Then as if I wasn’t getting the picture, he added, “Man, he was bleeding—they fucked him up bad!”
Just then I spotted the four from my dorm linking up with the chow line. They saw me and grinned, their eyes full of conspiracy.
Tommy looked at the toilet brush sticking out of my waistband—the exclamation point in our situation. “We gotta do something,” he said. “These guys are gonna kill us.”
I sucked in a ragged breath, imagined the horror of having a mop handle shoved up my ass for another two seconds and told him, “Let’s get the hell outta here.”
With the discretion it called for, he slowly turned to sight in the nearby pines and said, “I’m right behind you.”
Twenty-two hours later …
Tommy was bent over his knees spitting bloody teeth on the floor, the ones he hadn’t already swallowed. We were handcuffed together in the back seat of a new Dodge station wagon. Somehow Mr. Fox had sneaked up on us in a corn field a few miles from Morrison, just before dawn, and the first swing of his metal crutch had hit Tommy square in the kisser and mangled him like a jack-o-lantern.
Hungry and hopeless and only slightly less bloody, I just stared out the window at the passing pines and peanut fields, at all the darkness and distance we’d put between us and the housing project from hell. It seemed nothing short of divine intervention could save us now.
After a short ways Tommy made his voice as small as he could around the pain and said, “Maybe now they’ll take us to Jackson.”
“Better not be bleedin’ on my seats back there,” said the man who walked funny, but could swing that crutch of his like a Louisville slugger. “You punks come down here stirrin’ up shit, runnin’ me all over tarnation. You best be thankful I’m in a forgivin’ mood.”
I wiped my bloody nose on my bloody t-shirt, looked at Tommy’s mangled mouth. I had the feeling this forgiveness we should be thankful for wouldn’t include another transfer.
A few minutes later and just as the sun was beginning to lighten the sky, the cripple turned onto the reformatory’s cracked and weedy concrete drive and followed it right on by the dormitories and basketball courts around to a windowless and fenced-in cinderblock building at the rear. There he blew the horn, climbed out with his crutch, and whacked the door. “Alright, get on outta there,” he said. “You waitin’ on a damn invitation, or what?” Tommy and I climbed out facing the little block building, cutting our eyes to those nearby pines and weighing another flight—a flat-out run for our lives. But it was no use. Just then a big muscle-head named Washington emerged from the ironically named “segregation” building. He was carrying a large flashlight and shined it right in our faces.
“Where’d you find ‘em?” he asked the cripple and unlocked the fence.
Mr. Fox was stomping the mud from his boots. “They busted into old man Tillman’s place.” He whacked our legs for us to move. “I caught ‘em back there in that cornfield eatin’ Moon Pies and drinkin’ RC Colas.”
Washington shut the gate behind us, was shaking his big bald head. He looked down at our bare feet and muddy clothes, at Tommy’s mangled mouth, and was amused. “Funny ain’t it, the way the world turns,” he said. “First it was us takin’ to the woods. Now it’s ya’ll trying to get loose from us. Bound to be some poetry in that there.”
On the other side of the little building’s steel door Mr. Fox reclaimed his handcuffs and strip-searched us for the second time in twenty four hours, once again checking our assholes for automatic weapons. When none were found, and between him and Washington it was decided our injuries didn’t exceed acceptable limits, they tossed us each a pair of undershorts and launched us down a dimly lit hallway of more steel doors painted black and numbered 1 through 8.
The Louisville slugger thudded in Tommy’s back, shoving him ahead of me. “Put that one with Carter,” said the cripple. “We’ll stick this one in with Godette and the other two.”
As Tommy then disappeared into a cell near the hall’s end, he opened cell #6 and jabbed me into a tiny and unlit room, a black hole with the air quality of a recently vacated outhouse. I saw bodies on the floor and nothing else. Three boys curled up on the bare concrete like just-salted slugs.
“Okay boy, there ya go,” he said. “You wanted to cornhole some niggers—there’s three right there.”
Washington came up behind him. “Yeah, hit them three and we’ll fix you up with three more.” He pointed to the boy closest to the door. “Way I hear it, Godette there’s got a tight little dookie shoot.”
Two of them laughed at that, just stood there for a moment enjoying the fear on my face—the captured Klansman tossed to the niggers. And then the door slammed shut and the tiny room went dark as a cave, and the only sound was that of their walking away and wagering which of us would be first to back up to a black dick. Washington’s money was on Tommy.
I felt around for the wall. Stepped right on a body part that didn’t move and stumbled into the corner. Neither of the boys stirred, or spoke, and in the slow-moving seconds of silence that followed I just hugged my knees and waited for whatever was next.
“Hey Maurice, they put one ’a them crackers witchoo?”
The question went unanswered. The next few seconds paired up with the small splash of light under the door to present me with all the nocturnal vision I could expect, then finally the boy Washington had baited came uncurled and put his back to the wall.
“Don’t be payin’ them niggers no mind,” he said, more tolerant than friendly.
I swallowed his words carefully—it quickly crossed my mind that the baited might now be doing some baiting of his own. No way was I chancing a wrong reply. “I think I stepped on his arm,” I said and indicated the salted slug between us.
He let out a snicker. “Shit, you could’a stepped on his head and he wouldn’t ‘a knowed it. That nigger Fox, he got them two knocked out cold. They was yellin’ and poundin’ on the door all hours. Hungry. I’m Maurice.”
“I’m Robert,” I said. Then before I could ask he kicked at the other one and said, “See? It’s this blue-colored stuff makes you sleep all the time. Tastes like shit, but swallows easier ‘n teeth.”
“Maurice! Nigger, I know you hear me!” It was the boy in the nearby cell again. “You tell that cracker to send them catheads ’n gravy right on over here. And I ain’t playing ‘bout that either.”
Maurice kept ignoring him. And I was trying to do the same.
“So what dorm was ya’ll in?” he asked.
“I was in Pamlico. Tommy was in Albermarle.” I didn’t bother to mention the third boy, just left him out for now.
“They sent ya’ll down from that joint up in the mountain?”
“And you lit outta here yesterday mornin’ at breakfast. We heard.”
“Yeah …” I emptied my lungs, leaned my bruised head against the wall. “You might say it seemed the wisest course of action.”
He let out another snicker. “Otha’ words you was ‘bout to lose somethin’ you wanted to keep.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” I said. Then I asked, “So how long ya’ll been in here?” I looked at the other two, still as corpses in a morgue.
“Somethin’ over a month. I lost count.” A large cockroach caught his eye, sneaking under the door. He got down to eye level with it, sighted-in the cell across the hall, and thumped it under.
“Hey motherfucka!” It was the previous anonymous voice, and he was spitting—and spitting mad. The cockroach had hit him right in the mouth.
Maurice leaned back against the wall laughing, and told him, “Put you some gravy on that, you bitch!”
“Something over a month, huh?” I was keeping to my hearing-impaired bystanding.
He wiped his fingers on his underwear. “Ever since them two niggers got me back ’a the big Merita Bread place, over there on that highway to Rockingham.”
“You run off too?” I took this as a good sign; that perhaps we had more in common than our ages and near-nakedness in a smelly concrete cell.
“Sheeyit,” he said, “Ya’ll ain’t the onliest ones wantin’ to quit this joint. I got better things besides plantin’ black-eyed peas and sweet potatoes. Back in Greensboro, I got me a girl.”
“Well what happened? How’d they catch you?” I tried shifting my weight around. The concrete was cold and hard and reminding me of every place I’d been hit.
“They tricked me with one ’a them little bakery trucks, the low down snakes. Got the people to leave it sittin’ back there by the loadin’ dock, and full up with joo-joos and wham-whams. Right out where they knew I’d see it.” He sucked a little air through his teeth, recalling the taste of the hook, line, and sinker. “Yep, them is two low down niggers, alright, ’specially that littlest one.”
“You got that right,” I put in. My daring was building a little.
“Somehow or other they knowed I was edgin’ along the road there and headed thatta’ way, right by there.”
“Somebody probably saw you and snitched you out. I figure that’s how they got us too.”
“Well, I’ve had a long think about that,” he said, “and all I know is when I seen them keys hangin’ in the switch—sheeyit. It was like a runaway slave happenin’ on a saddled horse with a pack lunch and a roadmap North.”
“Yeah, there ain’t no passing up something like that,” I said, thinking back to the poorly latched window at the little country store, the shelves stocked with Moon Pies and more.
He went on, “Next thing I seen, that little nigger popped around the corner ’a that truck and was whackin’ me all about the head. Nigger’s got a thing ’bout knockin’ out teeth.” He ran a finger over the space where a couple of cuspids used to be.
I said to him, “You oughtta see what he did to Tommy.”
“You watch,” he said, “one ’a these days somebody’s gonna hang a hawkbill in him and feed his ass to the Kudzu.” He learned over to a crumpled paper plate in the corner, lifted it to reveal the stub of a sewer pipe, and spat down it. Then he casually leaned back and said, “So where’d he catch ya’ll?”
My eyes were still on the pipe. I suddenly realized what else was missing in the tiny cell and asked him, “Where’s the toilet?!”
“Right there.” He was looking at the paper plate.
“Huh?” It may as well have been a still-humming saucer from outer space—and it instantly explained the smell.
“That nigger Fox,” he said, as if that was explanation enough. But then he added, “Back in July when that Crazy Carter down there flooded the joint, him and Washington come in and took out all the toilets and sinks. Mattresses too.”
A second cockroach, another thump. This time he didn’t bother to aim.
“Now we jus’ got the pipe. Usually Washington brings a little shit paper and a bucket of ’a water right after breakfast. You drink what you want ‘n do what you gotta do, then we dump the rest down the pipe.”
“Jesus …” I said and buried my head in my hands, wanting it all to be a dream.
“Used to be,” he went on, “they’d give out them little mattresses and a blanket at dinner, then pick ‘em up at breakfast time. Now them niggers got ‘em all locked up in that first cell up there. Makes us sleep on the floor.” He held out his foot for me to examine. “See that sore there? How it’s all swole up?”
“Yeah?” It was visible even in the dark, even on his dark skin. “It looks full of puss.”
He spat down the pipe again. “That’s where a rat bit me the otha’ night. Come right down under the door there. They’s a whole big nest of’em up there in them mattresses.” He put his nose down to the light to sniff for those catheads and gravy, said, “Like I was sayin’ one ’a these days somebody’s gonna get that nigger. This here ain’t right. Not one bit.”
By the time Washington got around to the cold biscuits and grease gravy, Tommy had already made him the winner of his bet with the cripple. We had heard the punches and the pleading, and then the much smaller sounds of him surrendering to “Crazy Carter”—a giant of a boy whose first sexual experience, according to Maurice, had been with a farm animal. I felt lousy for Tommy, but I was in no position to help. He was all on his own. And as the days there turned to weeks and then to months and it happened to him again and again, all I could do was be thankful it wasn’t happening to me. It was just lucky for me that Maurice was different. Within a few days the sleepers were gone, and instead as we talked the things we had in common kept growing in number, a friendship was formed, and he helped me accept the unacceptable. For instance, since we only saw the shower down the hall on Saturdays, he taught me to birdbath in the bucket real quick using my undershorts as a washcloth. And since there were only two meals a day, on paper plates, and no forks, or spoons, or toothbrushes, he showed me how to tear off a corner of the plate to scoop the beans and such, and to fashion the very occasional chicken bones into toothpicks. He also taught me to chew up and swallow any unused toilet paper from breakfast. And of course there was a certain coordination and accuracy to be learned concerning the pipe. But as clever as we became with those sorts of survival skills, there was just no adjusting to hunger. No getting used to those two meals a day that were always cold and never enough.
And no defense from the wildlife. Like a pack of junkyard dogs, the rats that colonized inside those cotton mattresses were territorial and unafraid. They came out in the stillness around midnight and were most active, and aggressive, on the nights we had peanut butter sandwiches for dinner—which was every day that didn’t begin with a “T”. They could smell the oil left on our fingers, and would often mistake them for an open jar. Usually Maurice and I were still up talking when they popped under the door, and the face-off ended in our favor. But not always. A few times we woke to their whiskers in our face. Then finally one got lucky and got me good, the same as Maurice. It happened on my 157th day there. And while I can’t be certain if I woke to the sound of its teeth scraping the bone, or the pain that followed, I am sure then when I jumped up it held on tight. It was only after I smacked it against the wall that at last it turned loose and disappeared under the door—with a little piece of my finger in its mouth.
What happened next was as predicable as yesterday’s weather. My finger became infected. I showed it to Washington and asked for something to put on it, and he quickly determined the redness and swelling to be within acceptable limits.
“Aw shit, boy. Stop ya whinin’—here,” he said and flung the roll of toilet paper at me. “Wrap some ‘a that around it. I seen worse ’n that in the shavin’ mirror.”
With that said, when he then picked up the bucket and slammed the door back, I figured that was the end of it; that somehow I would just have to endure the aching and throbbing for the next week or so as Maurice had, until my immune system worked its magic and it healed on its own.
But I was wrong. A few hours later he returned with murder in his eyes, flung some clean denim at me and said, “They’s some people to see ya. This ain’t no goddman visitin’ day, but I’m gonna let you see ’em. It’s ya mama.”
Right away my brain needed a few seconds to weigh the possibilities, some sort of trickery being chief among them. I didn’t like the man my mother had chosen to replace my father, and had run away from home two times to prove it. And in the nine months since volunteering me to the state of North Carolina for that reason, my mother hadn’t bothered to visit me or write to me even once. So why now?
I looked to Maurice, for legitimacy. When I got it, I figured it had to be real and started yanking on the clothes before Washington changed his mind. As I was tucking in the shirt he stepped close and warned, “And I’m tellin’ ya now, you best not be running off at the mouth ’bout this place here. And that includes that little nick on ya finger. You act right and we’ll get ya tended to when she’s gone.”
I yessir’d him, quick and vigorous. There was no visiting room in the segregation building, and Washington had campaigned hard to keep my mother away. But when she simply would not be denied—for reasons unknown—he had very grudgingly opened four folding chairs in the clothing room and seated her there, along with the aforementioned stepfather and my younger sister Mary.
It would not be a happy reunion. When I walked into the room my mother looked up from lighting a fresh Salem and let out a gasp. Instantly, she and my sister burst into tears and ran to throw their arms around me. By then I had lost a third of my weight and was visibly weak. My scalp and gums were bleeding from the lack of vitamins (scurvy) and my finger was wrapped in toilet paper.
“Son, what happened to your finger?” The question came from my stepfather, his hand on my shoulder.
I hesitated. Washington was nearby, looming in the doorway like an executioner.
“Let me see that.” My mother broke the hug, her shock switching to anger. She looked at Washington, but was still talking to me. “What kind of place is this that won’t even give you a Band-Aid?!” She pulled me down to one of the chairs, took my hand and unwrapped the toilet paper to see the wound and cried, “My God—you’ve got tetanus! How did this happen?” I looked at Washington, got a silent reminder of our discussion. My mother detected my reluctance and said, “You don’t need his permission to talk to me—what happened to you?”
Washington rolled his big bald muscle-head, put in, “Lady, it’s just a little bite ‘a some kind. It ain’t no tetanus. We’ll get it tended to.”
Now my mother, a registered nurse, was suddenly fit to be tied. She knew tetanus when she saw it.
“It was a rat, Mom!” I didn’t like the way he was talking to her, finally just cut loose. “It came under the door and bit me on the floor while I was asleep! He makes us sleep on the cold floor in our underwear, and won’t even let us have a toothbrush—we don’t even have a toilet! We have to …”
Washington tried to step in and shut me up, but my stepfather changed his mind.
My mother put a finger in his face and said to him, “You bastard, you get my son to a doctor—you get him out of this place! I promise you, I’m leaving here and going straight to the Governor’s office!” Then to me she said, “Honey, I sear I didn’t know it was anything like this. I’m going to go right now and get you out of here. I promise.”
I was crying as hard as she was, hanging onto her and my sister like I might never see them again. Seeing them hurting the way they were was the worst pain I had ever known. Finally the little room full of unused clothing was unable to contain the emotion any longer. My mother and sister gave me a hard hug and rushed out in tears. My stepfather—the man I had despised and thought despised me back—gave me a quick and reassuring hug, and said to me, “You just hang in there a little longer, son. We’ll get you out of here.”
And then he too was gone. The visit was over.
Back in the cell, when I told Maurice what had happened and what my mother had said about getting me out, he just shook his head. The only thing he had confidence in was the beating I had coming from Washington. But to my relief, that beating never arrived.
Two days later the door at the end of the hall opened at an odd time, too early for dinner.
“They’s nobody in this first one,” we heard Washington say to someone. “That’s where we put the mattresses durin’ the daytime. We pass ‘em out at night, collect ‘em up in the morning so’s they don’t lay around sleepin’ all day.”
I looked at Maurice and he looked at me. Then suddenly Washington opened cell #2 and the person with him reacted in astonishment. “My Lord!” he said. “How long have these boys been in here like this? And where’s the toilet?”
Ours hearts went racing. It was the voice of an educated white man. Someone of real importance, it seemed.
“About a week, I believe,” Washington replied, backpedaling. “I’ll have to check.”
“Bullshit, a week! We been in here more ’n eight months!” The three boys braved in chorus to the stranger, realized the same as Maurice and me. “And we ain’t got no toilet—we gotta use this pipe!”
Washington muttered something in the way on an explanation, but it was just rotten meat and not being swallowed.
They moved along. At cells #3 and #4 the exchanges were the same. Washington’s words were getting at every door. Finally they reached our cell and the door opened to reveal a powerful-looking man in a dark suit. His eyes locked on me—and on my hand—and he said, “Son, you are Robert Brame?”
My eyes were stinging with tears. I stood up and said, “Yes sir.”
“Well how’s your hand?” he pointed, then motioned me into the light so he could have a better look. Washington hadn’t beaten me, but neither had he taken me to a doctor. And by then the fever and swelling had migrated to my elbow.
“Good Lord,” he said and was shaking his head. He turned to Washington and told him, “I want this building closed and every single one of these boys dressed and in a van on their way to the nearest hospital. Now!”
Then as Washington hightailed it down the hall, the stranger turned back to Maurice and me and said, “We’re going to get you boys out of here. And you will not be coming back.” He looked at my hand again and said to me, “Son, I spoke to your mother yesterday. She came to see me in great distress over you. I promised her I would come here and check on you personally, and I’m certainly glad I did. This is absolutely appalling, and I’m very sorry you had to endure it. Both you boys.” He pulled a clean white handkerchief from his coat and gave it to me, for my tears. Then as he started to walk away, and Maurice and I were hugging, he turned back to me and said, “By the way, son, I’m Lieutenant Governor Robert Morgan. I’ll be calling your mother as soon as I leave here. You’re going home.”