Dylan Jeffrey was awarded Second Place in Fiction the 2015 Prison Writing Contest.
A Bronson Argueta Mystery (excerpt)
Under the very best of circumstances, it’s hard to get a solid night’s sleep in prison. For one thing, your mattress is only half an inch thick. Then there’s the noise—too erratic and discordant to tune out, too jarring and abrasive to ignore. And then there is the overall pervasive sense of unease that keeps you sleeping with one eye open, just in case. On the night that old man Simms hung himself I was sleeping like a log thanks to some earplugs I’d happened to come upon a few days earlier. My cellie’s snoring of late had grown out of control so I had to hustle this pair of earplugs to keep from killing him in his sleep! That’s how I managed to sleep right through all the commotion on the night Simms ended his life, though it woke my cellie up with a start. “It was spooky,” he told me later, “like a horror movie.”
The C.O. who found Simms had only been working here for a couple of weeks when she discovered the body during the three o’clock count. It was her screaming that woke up my cellie and half the housing unit. Later it was said you could hear her screams two pods over as she went running out of the pod, still screaming. Simms had a kitchen worker for a cellie, a guy named Griego who went to work at 2:00am and didn’t shut their door when he left. Apparently some time between two and three Simms went out with his sheet tied around his neck and flung himself off the top tier. No one saw or heard him but Bronson told me later that he’d heard a cell door click shut sometime around two thirty. Even the slightest sounds can resonate through the pod at night when it’s quiet, and Bronson happened to be up late reading, deep into a Larry McMurtry novel I’d recommended to him, when he noticed the cell door shutting. Not slamming, he realized in retrospect, but as if someone was aiming for stealth.
Bronson Argueta lived in cell 221 and was our resident intellectual (by prison standards anyways). He was astonishingly well-read and had an impressively sizable vocabulary that he knew how to use. It was also impressive how seldom he cursed. Almost everyone in prison abuses the word fuck, using it every other word—to show how “bad” they are, I suppose. Such overuse seriously drains the word of its power and fun and they come off sounding painfully ignorant. Bronson was truly unique in that he only used obscenities for emphasis when he deemed it necessary. He was already 20 years into a triple life sentence by the time I’d met him, and had already devoured most of the Western Canon in literature. He’d recently moved onto history and biographies. He was frequently plagued by ennui and spent most of his time getting high and doing crossword puzzles to combat the grind of existence. Nowhere more so than prison does the theory of eternal recurrence seem plausible.
I’d met Bronson a few years earlier when a mutual friend brought him by my cell. It was just after morning chow call and my friend Jay introduced us, then asked if they could use my room to shoot up in. I’ve got a fairly clean-cut look about me and my cell rarely had any heat so people sometimes used it as a safe haven for nefarious means. “Sure, be my guest,” I told them. They offered me a paper but I thanked them and turned it down, not so much out of disinclination to the drug as squeamishness towards needles. I had a job once as a dialysis technician and hepatitis is not something I ever want to go through. Besides, I prefer weed if I’m going to indulge. I noticed right away that Bronson handled himself well. Some folks will spend their entire high throwing up. I’ve seen others standing in full view of the pod swaying and drooling like lazy somnambulists. Jay’s eyes narrowed and he quickly went on the nod. With Bronson however, you couldn’t even tell that he was using. He spotted my Scrabble board and asked if I wanted to play. He beat the shit out of me that first game by over 200 points. We played a second game and he trounced me even worse. I’ve never seen anyone pull so many seven-letter words! “Maybe I should take you up on that paper,” I said.
“You can always snort it, since you seem so adverse to needles,” he rejoined, surprising me with his astute perception of my fear of needles. We played three more games that morning and while I didn’t win a single one, we’ve been friends ever since. Before long we were trading weathered paperbacks and throwing the occasional spread, usually green chili chicken enchiladas. Bronson favored the classics and rarely read anything under a hundred years old (basically he preferred books written before the invention of the horseless carriage) while I tended more towards contemporary fiction. We bonded over a love of literature and a loathing of mainstream mediocrity—we despised James Patterson and Dean Koontz with a passion and ignored Grisham and Clancy, the other hugely popular authors among the prison population—and our love for Scrabble. Bronson never kept any kind of regular schedule that I could tell. Sometimes he seemed to stay up for weeks without so much as a catnap. Other times he’d crash hard for three days straight, without stirring. But on the night Simms hung himself, Bronson was wide awake halfway through Lonesome Dove when that unfortunate C.O. saw the body hanging from the tier and woke up half the housing unit with her terrified screams. And I slept right through it, no doubt dreaming about fine food and beautiful women. I didn’t even notice that anything was amiss until well after dawn when they wheeled in the breakfast cart. My cellie Marcus was standing at our door looking out into the pod through the thin rectangular window.
“What happened?” I asked him as I realized we were still locked down.
“Ol’ man Simms hung himself.”
“What? No shit? Dead?”
“Yeah, he’s dead! They came and cut him down around four and his body wasn’t movin’ when they took him out.”
“They didn’t call you to clean?” Marcus was a biohazard worker, which meant he cleaned up all the blood whenever there was a fight. He made good money and they often let him out to work when the rest of us were locked down.
“Naw, there wasn’t no blood.”
Later that morning they called us into the Lieutenant’s office one by one for interviews. Ostensibly to see if there’d been any drama in our pod recently, but it was really just procedural, mostly for show. By noon they popped the doors and we were back out again, though on pod restriction. Of course all the talk was about the hanging. It was quite a novelty, as we’d never had a suicide in our pod before. There was one point in particular that everyone was especially buzzing about; Simms only had a few months left on his sentence, four to be exact. He was practically a free man. Why would someone so close to the door kill himself? we all wondered. Simms had never seemed particularly glum or unhappy. If anything he was usually too jolly and gregarious, to the point that it was mildly irritating. It just didn’t make any sense and there was a lot of speculation. I overheard one of the perros talking about Kurt Cobain—how he’d been on top of the world—“all that fuckin’ money and fuckin’ success and bitches and fuckin’ look at him, ’ey, he’s fuckin’ got it made and fuckin’ still ain’t fuckin’ … know what I mean?”
Yes, I did know what he meant. All that money and success but still not happy, and the shotgun beckoning. I went to visit Bronson but he was in one of his introspective moods, absorbed in a crossword, so I let him alone and went to sit with Tiny and Wayne. They were playing dominoes at one of the dayroom tables, engaged in one of their infamous petty arguments. Wayne and Tiny were forever squabbling, almost always over something incredibly stupid. It got so heated sometimes that they wouldn’t speak to each other for a few days, but they always made up again eventually. They would fight over the dumbest things—like whether the blood inside our bodies is actually blue and only turns red when it’s exposed to air. Or once they almost came to blows over whether the sensation of taste is primarily dictated by the olfactory system or the tongue. As I sat down, Tiny was complaining that Simms still owed him ten bucks for a pair of headphones he’d sold him.
“Why don’t you go get ’em? He ain’t gonna be using ’em now.” Wayne cackled his hillbilly laugh.
“They already packed up all his shit. I told Griego to grab ’em for me but he said there weren’t no headphones. Son of a bitch probably grabbed ’em for hisself!”
“I thought those headphones was broke anyway,” said Wayne.
“Just the left side. That’s why Simms bought ’em. He was deaf in his left ear so he didn’t care the left side didn’t work.”
It was true, Simms was deaf in one ear and he used this to his advantage, rarely listening to a word anyone said. He loved lecturing people about matters he knew nothing about and when you tried conversing he’d lean his deaf side towards you as an excuse to ignore your every word, pretending he couldn’t hear. As I spoke with people throughout the day I noticed that nobody really mourned his passing. Indeed, Simms was an ornery old curmudgeon who wasn’t much liked. I always tried to be cordial to him out of deference to his age, but I’d also avoided him as much as possible. His rambling know-it-all gibberish could be exhausting. Sadly, it didn’t take more than a day or two before all the excitement died down and he was forgotten altogether. After all, life goes on even in prison. But then, two weeks later Bronson got a letter from Simms’s daughter. Which was strange for a couple of reasons. One, Bronson wasn’t all that close to Simms. They hardly knew each other apart from the odd head nod of acknowledgement in passing. The other strange thing was that we didn’t even know Simms had a daughter. No one did.
We were in Bronson’s cell, 221, trying to make heads or tails out of her letter. Bronson had a bottom bunk and I was sitting on his bed while he paced. We took turns passing the letter back and forth, reading portions of it aloud:
Dear Mr. Argueta,
You don’t know me but my father often spoke highly of you. He told me once that if anyone could help us it would be you. Please listen to me: my father DID NOT kill himself! We spoke on the phone almost daily for the last six months and he was looking forward to coming home and making up for lost time. Please help me to prove that he didn’t kill himself. I’ve called your facility but they won’t listen to me. It’s a done deal as far as they’re concerned. My father had a rather large insurance policy and now they’re refusing to pay. He kept that policy for years expressly so that his grandkids would be provided for. There is no way he would’ve thrown all that away, believe me. All he ever talked about was how glad he was that his grandchildren would be taken care of. I know my father has done some shady things in there to survive. He was afraid for a long time but then he guessed enough years had gone by and it had all blown over. But I read somewhere once that there is no timetable in prison when it comes to settling scores—that sometimes they like to wait until you relax and rest easy before they act. I don’t know who he burned in the past but they got him back. The bastards waited till he was almost free and they murdered him. I’m not asking you to enact revenge or do anything foolish or dangerous. Just find a way to prove that he didn’t commit suicide. Or at least give me a name. If you can help me, if you can prove that he was murdered, I’ll put $5,000 on your books. At the very least, if you can tell me who killed my daddy I’ll give you $1,000. Please help me, Mr. Argueta. I don’t know where else to turn.
“Well, what do you think?”
“It’s true, he was on the phone a lot the last few months. And he certainly seemed happy enough.”
“‘I know he’s done some shady things in there.’ What’s that about, I wonder?”
“I don’t have the faintest clue,” said Bronson. “He’d been down a long time. I never heard anything dirty about his jacket but he’s been all over the state. He’s bound to have pissed off somebody over the years.”
“‘Sometimes they like to wait until you rest easy to strike.’”
“Ah yes, the ubiquitous ‘they.’”
“Ha! ‘I’m not asking you to do anything foolish.’ That’s exactly what she’s asking you to do!”
“It wouldn’t have been difficult,” Bronson said, dismissing my concern. “Griego could have done it before leaving for work … could’ve choked him out and tied a sheet around his neck … ”
“But he couldn’t have tied it to the rail and tossed the body off the tier without the other kitchen workers seeing it. And I wouldn’t trust anyone in here to keep their mouth shut about something that big.”
“Maybe he had an accomplice. I told you I heard someone creeping around out there before that chick did her Tarzan yell.” Another thing that endeared me to Bronson was that he was respectfully old-fashioned enough to use the term “chick” in an age where people felt comfortable referring to a member of the fairer sex as “bitch.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just can’t picture Griego doing something like that. He doesn’t seem hard enough. Besides, they got along. I mean, he put up with Simms for, what, like three years?”
Bronson was smoking a cigarette rolled from a Gideon Bible page. After exhaling a cloud of smoke into the vent he said, “People will do all kinds of crazy things for enough money. Like nosing around and asking cop questions, for instance.”
“Wait, you’re not seriously considering this, are you?”
“I’m bored, amigo. This will give me something to occupy my mind. And besides, a thousand dollars can buy a grip of recreational diversion.”
“You don’t need the money.” Bronson’s mom sent him one hundred dollars every month. “Besides, you’d blow through a thousand bucks in no time. It’s not worth the risk and trouble.”
“But this poor girl—she needs me, man. I’m her last hope.”
“You’re full of shit.” I know he didn’t care one whit for Ms. Janet Simms-Monroe. “He hung himself, man. Case closed. He couldn’t face the outside world after all these years. He didn’t wanna lose his free health care and paid room and board!” There was a moment of silence and I could tell Bronson was deep in thought.
“I didn’t even know you could have life insurance in prison. The premiums must’ve been outrageous.”
“He did live frugally,” said Bronson.
I figure he came closest to the truth when he told me that he was bored. After twenty years in jail it’s probably hard to pry up new experiences and after so many years of diligently minding his own business, amateur sleuthing would certainly qualify as something different.
“I guess I need to put Janet on my phone list. Maybe put her on my visitor list too.”
To receive a money order from a civilian, they needed to be on your approved visitor list. Clearly Bronson was already thinking ahead.
He set off at once to see Bones, our pod librarian, to get a couple of request forms.
Bronson spent the next few days asking all the old-timers about Simms. Who he’d run with, whether he was ever affiliated, what were the circumstances of his transfers from one facility to another? Sometimes the state simply moves you for no reason if you’ve been at one facility for more than five years. It’s totally arbitrary and random but it does happen. Far more often though, there is some kind of story involved when an inmate gets shipped out. I knew a guy named Red (I’ve known dozens of Reds actually. If you have red hair, you’re automatically christened Red by these folks. Convicts aren’t very original when handing out nicknames. Take Tiny for example—he’s a huge dude, easily six foot five and big-boned. Anyone gigantic in size gets branded Tiny. And so on. Anyway.) who racked up a massive heroin debt. Rather than pay, he chose to PC, so they had to transfer him elsewhere. It was a surprise as Red still had a lot of time to do and that sort of thing will follow him wherever he goes for the rest of his sentence. It will doubtless catch up with him someday when he crosses paths with one of the homies he burned. This was the sort of thing Bronson was trying to uncover in Simms’s past. Most of the old-timers lived in D pod, old man’s pod, so Bronson had to go talk to them in the rec yard. I hate outdoor rec myself. The sun and fresh air are nice, but there isn’t much of a view—just concrete, barbed wire, and dirt. Plus I’m not really into exercise, apart from bicycling and swimming, neither of which are offered here. Also there are the inevitable bursts of violence, which I’ve lost the stomach for over the years. Just picture any movie or TV show with a prison rec yard scene and you get the idea. For once, the stereotype is fairly accurate. I couldn’t really join Bronson anyway as I have to work in the afternoons. I’m a medical porter, which means I get to sit around and shoot the breeze with the nurse staff. It’s an environment I’m comfortable in from my time at the dialysis clinic and the nurses appreciate my knowledge in their field. The doctor is a bit spacey but a nice enough guy. The only downside is that the perros are forever asking me to steal hypos for them and it breeds a lot of animosity when I refuse. It would cost me my job if I were caught, and I really like my job. It’s refreshing to hang out with “normal” people and they often bring me little treats from the outs like fast food or candy bars. I don’t touch that kind of stuff on the streets but in here, fast food is like five-star cuisine compared to our usual dining fare.
When I got off work I swung by the library and picked up a T. C. Boyle book. I met up with Bronson at one of the crash gates, where a small traffic jam was building up. It takes the average inmate about ten seconds waiting for a gate to open before they’ll lose their temper.
“FUCK! Motherfuckers,” snarled a teardrop-tattooed youngster, enraged. “Hurry the fuck up!!” A few others joined in with complaints while Bronson and I stood back, bemused. About a minute later the gate opened and we moved down the hallway to the next crash gate (I’m always reminded of the opening credits of the show “Get Smart”). Eventually we made it to the horseshoe of our housing unit. There were no C.O.’s around as we stood in D-space waiting for our pod door to open. “B pod!’ Bronson yelled towards the control booth, but they purposefully ignored us. Three minutes later C.O. Marquez returned from a break and hollered “Baker!” The pod door buzzed open and we ambled over to one of the dayroom tables. A few people were playing cards and a small group of perros was standing under the pod TV watching “12 Corazones,” an insipid dating program where scantily clad bimbos vied for companionship with shallow Latino studs.
“Fuck, ’ey,” said one of the perros in response to an especially stunning pair of breasts. “That fuckin’ bitch is fine, ’ey.”
“That bitch is fuckin’ badder than fuck,” enthused another, a short youngster covered head to toe in prison tats. One of the many things I admired about Bronson was the total absence of tattoos on his body, despite his cultural “heritage.” He was not one for conformity.
“Ey, fuckin’ . . . I’d eat the peanuts out of her shit,” continued the short gangsta.
“What purpose could that possibly serve anyone?” said Bronson. I hadn’t even been aware he’d been paying attention to the hooligans under the TV. This was typical of him to be completely aware of his surroundings despite how preoccupied he appeared. Affecting a poor imitation of the young gangsta’s voice, I said, “Ey, I’d fuckin’ follow her around with a bucket ’ey and I’d collect all her shits for a few weeks know what I mean, and then I’d dig out all the peanuts fuckin’ know what I mean and I’d make peanut butter using all the peanuts from her shits and then I’d make a peanut butter sandwich ’ey and fuckin’—”
“Stop it,” said Bronson, not even mildly amused. It was hard to make Bronson laugh.
“But—FUCK, ’ey, I forgot I’m allergic to peanuts. So after I eat all the peanuts out of her shit, I’ll go into fuckin’ anaphylactic shock, know what I mean?”
“Enough, I said!” Bronson commanded, irritated now. One of the gangstas looked over in our direction, unaware that I’d been clowning on him. Bronson proceeded to fill me in on all he’d learned in the yard that afternoon. It seemed as if Simms was totally clean. He’d always paid his debts on time and didn’t have any enemies. There was an incident where he was segged up for having inappropriate relations with a female staff member—he’d been ratted out by a jealous coworker for getting it on with one of the kitchen supervisors, but that was a long time ago and frankly not all that uncommon. Simms had never claimed any of the gangs and he did his own time, as they say. Bronson said he was starting to doubt any foul play at all when Griego suddenly approached him near the water fountains.
“I hear you’ve been asking around about ol’ man Simms.”
“Oh yeah? Where’d you hear that?”
“What’s with all the cop questions, fool?”
“I might ask you the same thing.”
“Is it true that you’ve been talking to his daughter?”
“I don’t see how that’s any concern of yours.”
“He was my cellie.”
“And now he’s dead.” Bronson let it hang there a moment.
“You should let it go, Bronson. That’s all I’m sayin’. I’m just … look, I’m not fuckin’ threatening you or anything, but … I’m just sayin’ … ”
I could imagine the twinkle Bronson must’ve gotten in his eye when Griego said the bit about “I’m not threatening you, but.”
“And I was about to drop it all too, ’til that weird scene,” he told me. “He did it. I don’t know how or why but he had a hand in it, I’m sure of it now. I’m thinking it was a job probably, nothing personal. Let’s see if he starts buying bigger canteen sacks or sportin’ new shoes.”
But we never got the chance. Two days later Griego was stabbed 37 times in the face, neck, and chest. They said he bled out within minutes.
It happened in the dry storage area of the kitchen and of course the cameras didn’t see a thing. Marcus told me it was a gruesome sight and it took him a couple of hours to clean it all. The whole facility was locked down for the next three weeks so I didn’t get a chance to talk with Bronson except for a few brief courtesies through the doors when they let us out for five-minute showers. Luckily I had a couple of Ruth Rendell novels and the new George R. R. Martin to keep me busy. I’m sure Bronson was happy with a new Dostoevsky he’d just got in the mail. These were pleasant distractions but deep down I wondered if Bronson was as worried as I was.