In Strange Company

by J.D. Mathes

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My time started in Clark County when I’d been arrested at my armory for helping cover up the theft of a machine gun and helping a guy get rid of it. Up until then I’d been a top-of-the-class, honor-graduate, top-gunner-in-the-National-Guard type of guy who may have underage drank with my hippie wife, but nothing so fucked up as this. Crazy, only five months ago I’d voted for Reagan’s second term to be tough on crime.

In jail, I learned, someone was always measuring you for what it profited them. Convicts will rope you into a card game to pass the time and voila you owe a carton of cigarettes to some asshole. It didn’t sound like much, but people will beat the crap out of you for cigarettes. I talked with others so as not to be a dick but remained guarded. But I wasn’t guarded enough, trying to play it cool like I wasn’t worried. The judge had just refused me bail even though my parents offered up their house as collateral. What was next? I was dialing the phone trying to get a hold of my dad. A guy who’d been glaring at me for a couple of days hit me in the temple from behind. I bounced off the wall as the receiver clacked against the cement. I kept my feet and turned toward him. He shadowboxed like Sugar Ray Leonard as he danced backwards toward the deputies storming the pod. Blood ran down my face. It hurt like a motherfucker, but even a guy like me, who’d never been in jail, knew not to care how much it hurt and not to show weakness. I knew, too, how lucky I’d been. If he’d kept pummeling me, it would’ve been a struggle to fight back.

“Man,” an old stringy haired addict said. “You need to learn how to look over your shoulder without looking like you’re looking over your shoulder.”

What rattled me the most was how fast it happened. I’d been training in martial arts with friends from my unit, but we trained squared up to each other, and if we did practice for attacks from behind, it was for someone grabbing you. I never wanted to be caught off guard again. I fell back on my military training to appear bullet proof, to keep men at a distance, and to hide the shame I’d caused my family.

After the judge gaveled me to two years, I was transferred to a federal prison in Arizona. The addict told me it’d be better there. The population was stable. “No joke,” he said, “You’ll learn who to avoid.”

“Welcome to AZ,” the Japanese trustee with a clipboard says as the marshals unshackle us. He looks at the six newly arrived prisoners from Vegas. “Good, no Korean dogs,” he says as we line up for photographs, fingerprints, and questionnaires about scars and tattoos to identify us if we escape or our corpse turns up cold on the yard. The office people compare files from other inductions to make sure everything matches and note any new tattoos or scars since our last intake record. I write down the new scar on my temple.

I find it funny guards go through this same process when they start work. A guard’s photo, called a hostage photo, is so the public relations officer can show the press who is captured if inmates seize control or to identify their bodies when the authorities retake the institution. A record of who they were before cigarettes burn dime-shaped scars into their faces or before fellow officers riddle them with bullets by accident.

The guards lead me across the yard toward a cellblock. After County, the prison feels freer. The desert smells like early monsoons had flooded the land and left hints of water pooled in natural cisterns. The buildings are spaced around a quad like a community college. Through the cyclone fence and concertina wire the desert is unbroken for miles, the stark sky overhead. Two workout areas have mesh shade tarps strung over them, and a running track is to the south of the buildings.

We walk into a building and through the smell of industrial strength cleaners, polish, and cigarettes. Just beyond the door the guards stop at a security post that looks over the common room with tables and chairs. Two tiers of cells surround the common area like motel rooms around a courtyard. Each has a wooden door with rectangular slits of safety glass so the guards can look in on you. The guards check me in, then lead me through the tables and up two flights of stairs.

The cell has a stainless-steel toilet, a bunk bed, and a small place to stow my stuff, which are Colgate toothpaste, toothbrush, pocket comb, a plastic soap case with a bar of Irish Spring in it, deodorant, two disposable razors, a notebook with a pen, a transistor radio with an earpiece, and a piece of cardboard from a legal pad with the Yin and Yang drawn in black ink on one side. I’ve written dates on it, starting in the upper left-hand corner since being locked up. I drew little asterisks next to some dates, meaning my wife Lynne had come to visit.

My cellmate resembles one of my dad’s brothers. He combs his reddish hair Johnny Cash style. He says everyone calls him Bristol, like the city. He sounds as if he could be from my old man’s roots, but instead of driving trucks or working in a mine, he ended up riding with the Hell’s Angels in Vegas after Vietnam, trafficking narcotics. Fading tattoos cover Bristol’s arms: a pin-up girl, a Navy ship, a heart, and a motorcycle tire with wings and a date with the name of a brother killed in a motorcycle accident.

“He was shot off it, but it was an accident all the same,” Bristol says. He wants to take me by the Vegas table to meet some guys. “Look, man, Gold is from an old school mob fam. I’m not saying you got to suck his dick, but just be cool. Dig?”

The long drive chained in the van to a bunch of strangers hoping we wouldn’t die in a fiery crash left me beat, but I figure I need to go along with him. The last thing I want to do is slight a mobster. We walk to a common area where inmates sit around tables, talking or playing cards or dominoes. That isn’t too different from County. Inmates play the hell out of games.

“This is the new guy.” Bristol introduces me to the middle-aged mobster. Gold shuffles a deck of cards and looks like he thinks a lot about odds. His black hair is trimmed, without a hair out of place.

Bristol takes a seat and looks at me until I catch on and sit. “We caught your fifteen minutes of fame on the news,” Gold says.

 “Me too,” I say. I’d watched my arrest on a television in County’s holding cell less than an hour after it happened. The images of me being marched out of the National Guard Armory, between two plainclothes agents, hands cuffed behind my back, past camera crews and reporters shouting questions, and into a waiting unmarked car made me feel like my spirit was trapped in Hell’s waiting room, the last moments of my life before they cut to the weather.

Gold riffles the cards, cuts with a butterfly cut, and sets them on the table. “Cut them.”

I pick up half the deck and set it aside. He takes the bottom stack and sets it on top of the other. He deals five hands of poker with the cards face up. The first card in front of him is the Ten of Hearts. His second card is the Jack of Hearts, then the Queen of Hearts, and the King of hearts. He pauses before turning over the last card. All the other hands look good enough to keep somebody betting. “Are you a gambling man, New Guy?”

“No, but I bet the Ace of Hearts is next.”

A fat man with a pale complexion shuffles over. “This is why we never let him deal,” he says. He’s accompanied by a man with a disfigured nose who stands about five-five. “You’re the new guy,” the fat man says as he shakes my hand. He eases his weight into the chair with a long sigh. His salt and pepper hair is also perfectly cut. I wonder if they have a private barber. “They call me Shy, and this scarred-up fireplug is Rub.” He thumbs to the disfigured man.

“Welcome, New Guy,” Rub says. “We heard about the fucking you got from the Feds with no bail, and that rat-fuck who gave you up. The Feds couldn’t catch a cold without a snitch.”

“My best pal too.”

Rub shakes his head.

Gold flips over the Ace of Hearts.

“We playing cards or you just going to keep wowing us with sleight of hand?” Shy says.

Gold grins. “You in, New Guy?”

I smile at the offer. “I need to stretch my legs.”

Rub says, “Me too. I’m not losing weight sitting around letting Gold swindle me out of cigarettes and ice cream. Come on, New Guy, I’ll show you the yard.”

Once outside, Rub pulls off his shirt. Several smudged gunshot scars and three long slashes paler than his Mediterranean skin mark his body. When he sees me looking, he says, “I’ve led a charmed life.”

The warmth of the sun and the breeze off the desert feel refreshing. Beyond the wire, mountain ranges called sky islands tower 10,000 feet above the desert floor. I’d grown up in these deserts. As a kid, I felt so free. If I wanted, with some good boots and a pack, nothing could stop me from walking in any direction to the lip of the world to see what was on the other side. Those weeks confined in County, with forced air and artificial lights, made my mind twitch as sound echoed off the concrete horizon. I felt an edginess like someone looked at me with malice all the time.

Rub leads me along a sidewalk circling the yard between buildings and past one of the weight piles where men lift away their time. Three men with swastika and SS tattoos talk shit to a couple of black guys in do-rags. They look about to fight when the guards arrive. There’s a lot of pointing and threats of later. We walk out onto the track and where it passes close to the fence, I stop. I squint through the wire. Heat waves rise through the mesquite, blurring the saguaro cacti. They appear to be swaying in a revival with thick gray-green arms stretching up to the bright sky. Beyond that thorned congregation, miles of open country.

Knots of men pace their way around the track. Some guys run. There’s a lot of Mexicans. I figure it’s because we’re close to the border. A Black guy rolls up. “Hey, Rub. This the new guy from Vegas?”

“Sure is, Mookie.”

“My cousin Playboy says I needs to look out for you.”

I laugh. Playboy and I had gone to basic training and armor school at Fort Knox together where we learned to be good tankers. We were in the same platoon at home before I fucked it all up. I guess technically we are still in the same unit. I don’t face court martial until after my release in about two years. Playboy will be a sergeant by then. I’d just turned twenty-one in the county jail. When I think about getting out, I realize I’ll have been in prison as long as I’ve been out of high school. What the hell am I going to do? I don’t know and thinking about it makes me want to run through the razor wire. I stare through the fence at all the desert.

The first night passes like no night in County. No clocks tick in this Arizona darkness. No muted traffic and hum of lights and the city beyond, no howling of inmates or the buzzing of alarms or click clacking of remotely locking cell and pod doors with the clattering of keys and nonslip soles on polished floors — only the silence and the ringing in my ears from a history of gunfire and rock concerts like any other mining town kid. Most of my first night in County I’d slumped in the holding tank too terrified to sleep. The place reeked of shit and piss and unwashed men. Sometimes people made a lot of noise, like a drunk Mexican in frayed jeans who yelled, “Time waits for no man!” as he pissed into the overflowed toilet with toilet paper streaming down its sides like a holiday float. A guy missing two front teeth asked, “You want that?” He pointed to a chewed-up baloney sandwich sitting in the lap of a guy passed out and drooling.

Here in AZ, I lie on the thin mattress not very different than the one I had in basic training. They must’ve gotten their mattresses from the same supplier. Even locked alone in the county cell, I’d not fall asleep for hours and then wake at anything outside the normal white noise of the jail. Once the fritz of a light bulb burning out brought me up swinging in the darkness. I began trying to meditate like my martial arts instructor, Dean, had taught me. He said it’d help me focus and clear my mind. He told me to breathe in for a count of five to ten, and out for the same. Concentrate only on the breath and let my mind join in the stream of it. It helped some, but there was always something on the edge of it, like a wild animal just beyond the ring of firelight.

Bristol snores on the bottom bunk. I wonder what Lynne is up to. It’s hard to believe I’d seen her only two days ago. We’d been separated a couple of weeks before my arrest, but she came to visit me several times in County. It seemed like we’d never had a problem or argument when we looked at each other through the security glass, talking over phone receivers, but we knew in that unspoken way of ex-lovers, we were beyond reconciliation. A guard shines a light in, snapping me out of my recent past, and moves on.

About a week later, a skinny old man shows up from Vegas. He’d been a boxing trainer but fucked up with some coke and a gambling debt and landed his ass in the penitentiary. All the Vegas guys know him from the city. He’d worked with some legit boxers who’d taken shots at titles. They call him Cutter, because he’s a great cut man to have in the corner and had thrown a fight for money when he’d used a razor to thin the skin over one of his boxer’s eyebrows, so it’d gush blood when hit.

I’ve fallen into lifting weights with Mookie and walking the track with Rub, Shy, and Cutter. The staff reassigned me to a cell in the same block as the other Vegas guys when Bristol got transferred. The guards showed up and took him out one morning. I don’t have a cellmate, so if I feel like walking around in tiny circles at three in the morning, I can, which is preferable to staring at the dim ceiling for hours. I read a lot, and I’m working my way through The Ten Thousand Day War: Vietnam 1945-1975. Some evenings I watch the guys play cards, laugh and joke, but never join in the game. I steer clear of the television area after some convict lost his shit about the others watching “Motherfucking Miami Vice.” The guards came and cooled him out. I hate being close to the guards. I won’t even speak to them like some inmates do, as if they’d just bumped into each other at the park.

As we walk the track, Cutter says, “I can train you and Mookie to box. It’d help me keep my skills alive.”

“That'd be cool,” I say, trying not to sound too excited.

The next afternoon, the first thing Cutter says to us is, “We’re going to steer clear of the bags until you learn footwork and how to throw a punch from the ground up.”

Cutter points to three Mexican guys learning to box from an older Mexican. One of the Mexicans is big and has a Virgin Mary tattoo covering his back. He’s strutting around, talking shit to others. "That’s Yucca training those guys. He gets them right on the bags. It’s amateur. See how they have shit follow through?”

Cutter gets us to stand with our left foot forward, angle our shoulders, hold our hands, and tuck our chin. “Alright push forward with your rear foot while taking the weight off your left. Don’t bob your head. That’ll give you away and your opponent will counterpunch. You’re launching an attack, not walking in the park. To move back, push backwards with your left foot.” We start moving in slow motion. “If you can move fluidly, you can suck a guy in, then lunge in with a jab.”

It isn’t until the next day that we begin working on punch mechanics, learning to step and torque our bodies and to use our muscles and skeletal structure. Then we put them together in combinations. Jab, right cross, uppercut. Jab, left hook, right hook to the body. Jab, jab, uppercut. To create muscle memory. To learn, as Cutter says, to “act before the thought.”

After a week, we line up at the heavy bag. “The sweet science isn’t about slap fighting like a couple of bitches,” Cutter says. “Your punch must extend past the target six to eight inches.” Cutter smacks the heavy bag with his arm fully extended at the end of the punch, making only a slapping sound. It barely moves. “Now watch,” he says as his fists go up, and he steps in and slugs the bag so hard it jumps back and up a foot or more.

Some guy waiting his turn says, “That old dude packs.”

My first punch wrenches my wrist over. I gasp and shake it out.

Cutter smiles, “Rookie. Keep your fist and elbow in line while keeping the wrist rigid.”

The big Mexican with the Virgin Mary tattoo says something. The Mexicans laugh.

I ignore him and square up again.

I feel self-conscious about working the heavy and speed bags with all the cons on the yard. Some of them work the bags as if they’d grown up doing it. All the violent eyes size me up, each of them thinking they could knock the shit out of me.

Over the next few days, I build up confidence. I begin slugging as hard as I can. I delight in making the heavy bag jump with a well-connected punch. I’ve lost my awkwardness at the bag, especially with Mookie and Cutter there. I care less and less what other people think.

I stare at the ceiling from my bunk, trying to map out the connections between blemishes on the paint, to make patterns and shapes that make sense. I have the sensation my body is gone and only my mind rests on the pillow as I concentrate on finding meaning in the ceiling. It’s almost like being super wasted without the room spinning. I try to meditate, but my attention keeps wandering across the ceiling. Dean told me meditation could increase my awareness of the world around me. I could develop a sixth sense to detect when danger was approaching. I don’t think it’s true, but I hope so.

“Hey, New Guy. What gives?” Mookie asks.

“Not much, man.” I sit up and swing my legs over the edge of the bunk.

“We working out?”

I'm glad Playboy told Mookie to look for me. Playboy works hard and sticks by the rules even though he talks shit about being a gangster in his neighborhood. Gangsters don’t worry about making corporal. He’s one of those dudes who never screws up or looks stupid, but he never excels either. He sure as shit doesn’t cover up for a friend who steals a weapon. Hell, he didn’t even take some of the stuff most others did after field training. On my first gunnery exercise, I saw guys stuffing belts of machine-gun ammo, boxes of pistol cartridges, smoke grenades, batteries, and rations into duffle bags they’d brought for that purpose. One sergeant said, “It’s all reported as expended, so technically not stealing.” It reminded me of the bonus program some miners lived by. The company didn’t pay dick and tried to fuck guys out of overtime, so tools and supplies disappeared into garages across the mining town.

I follow Mookie to the yard.

“Everything okay?” Mookie asks.


“Alright, man. Just keep it tight. Don’t let those fuckers get into your head.” He motions to the Mexicans at the boxing area. “That big guy just trying to look hard for the Mexican mafia and got nothing to lose. He’s getting deported no matter what.”

I start working combinations and moving around the heavy bag. The smack echoes, and the chain it hangs on rattles in rapid succession like a percussion section in an avant-garde band. I move away to let Mookie have a go. The speed bag is harder because of the hand-eye coordination needed and how fast the bag moves. I manage to make the bag beat a staccato, but my fist slips under, and it flops to a stop. I get the rhythmic thump-thump-thump going again. I feel like I’m accomplishing something of purpose. I’d read Bruce Lee’s philosophy about coordinating the mind and the body and becoming an overall fighter. In County, I felt my martial arts training had failed me, so now I hope to absorb all Cutter could teach me. At night after lights-out, I start thinking I can save my military career. If I go into the court martial and tell them how hard I worked at being a warrior, they’ll give me a chance to redeem myself. I need to show them I can endure, improve myself, and stay out of trouble here so they’ll see I’m not a criminal.

The soreness and shock on the bones and muscles under the desert sun make me lose my sense of being. In basic training, drill sergeants used to yell as we struggled in the front leaning rest position, our arms and shoulders aching from relentless gravity. The dark sweat of Kentucky humidity soaked us. Our faces contorted in a new pain none of us had to confront before. We wannabe soldiers were struggling not to collapse to the earth while the drill sergeants yelled, “Gravity is a weak force in the universe! Suck it up, dicks!” We lost our old selves and transformed into some harder, other beings. Here in AZ, I push the exertion and pain past what I endured in basic training because it makes me lose who I am now. It forces out my dark mood of being a worthless piece of shit, of not belonging here, and not belonging out there anymore. It makes me forget the disgrace I’ve caused my family, especially my mother, even if only for a little while. I hope, like basic training, it transforms who I am.

We finish working out and head to clean up before dinner. The big Mexican had tried to cut in line a couple of times. Cutter pulled Yucca aside, and they had words out of earshot. Yucca said something to his guy, and he backed off.

Before I get back to the cellblock, Cutter stops me. “Listen, I can arrange for you to go pro. You got the speed and skill and incredible focus.”

I feel a flush of pride being asked, but I say, “I love training and all, but it’s not for me.”

“Listen, when you get out, I’ll set you up with a trainer in Vegas. We’ll get you a place to stay and take care of your expenses. We’ll have a legit contract.” He looks like a hungry man.

I think about this guy who promises to help me but who also might be the corner man who’ll cut my face for a side bet. “I don’t want to fuck up my brain, man. Nothing personal.”

“Think of your future. The money and the glory. I can get you into a title fight. You’ll get unbelievable pussy.”

I say I'll think about it to get him to shut up.

Later, Shy tells me Cutter’s been bugging him to talk with me about boxing pro. “Cutter’s worried when he gets out, he’ll be an unemployed felon looking at turning sixty with zero prospects. That’s no reason to turn your brain into pudding.”

One afternoon, Cutter asks if I can get a towel. I start off but turn back when Mookie yells, “What the hell!”

 The big Mexican with his T-shirt wrapped around his head had cut the line in front of Mookie. He’s hitting the heavy bag. His back tattoo of the Virgin Mary is covered with sweat, and it looks like she’s having a seizure as he punches.

“Step back and wait your turn, motherfucker,” Mookie says. The guy keeps punching.

Guys start watching and drifting closer. Mookie clenches and unclenches his fists. I look around for guards, but I don’t see any.

Some of the other Mexicans shout in Spanish.

“Fuck this shit,” Mookie says. Everyone expects him to start swinging. The crowd surges towards them.

I watch for an ambush, but everyone looks like spectators.

The guards have noticed and are moving in. Exasperated, Mookie shakes his head. “You want it that bad, it’s yours.” The Mexican stops hitting the bag, puzzled. Mookie throws off his gloves as he walks toward his cellblock.

Cutter loses interest in training us. Then they transport Mookie. I use the bag on my own, mixing in kicks and elbow strikes. One afternoon, I’m working on the speedbag when Gold drifts over from his spot against the cellblock wall where he hangs out in the shade. I see Rub watching, along with Shy and a Cali Hell’s Angel who arrived last week. Gold says to me in a voice like he’s asking for a smoke, “It’s time you stopped.” He looks around as if he can see through walls. “You just need to give it a rest.”

The bag still swings. The chain creaks. No one else waits to use the equipment. I look around, not seeing what he sees. Yucca and the big Mexican and his compadres were transported. One day they were just gone. Some random dudes and some cliques mill around with a couple guards watching. Slow dread creeps through me about the casual crowd.

I nod. “Okay.” What else to say when a mob guy gives me fair warning? He doesn’t wait for me to say anything else. He continues up the walkway toward the track as if that’s where he was headed all along. I take off my gloves and leave them with the bag. I head back to my cell to read.

That evening, playing cards, Gold tells me, “Look, New Guy, I was born into this. You weren’t. Get out and don’t come back.” He lays his cards down. “Gin.”

After lights-out, I meditate. It reminds me of being a kid when I tried to hold as still as possible in the desert so I wouldn’t spook any wildlife. I’d read how soldiers in Vietnam would lay next to trails motionless to surprise the enemy in an ambush. So still that lizards crawled over them, or birds landed on the barrels of rifles as if alighting on a fence. In my concentration, I felt absorbed into the earth, as if I were a stone, and the animals came. Tonight, I feel I am sinking into the earth. My mind has become blank, and I am dead in the coffin that is this bunk. My breath isn’t mine but a vibration in tune with nature. I feel it as sure as the hum of a bass note. I sink into darkness. In the void, I hear my mother crying until it’s interrupted by a distant scream. It’s me as I awake to the sudden flash of the guard’s flashlight across my face as he counts me.

The next week, the guards rouse me out of my bunk before dawn. One tells me to gather my things. I walk out ahead of them. Their keys clack and echo in the empty cellblock as they shuffle, mumbling to each other behind me. My abs tighten. Every hair on my body rises as my balls draw up. I hadn’t yet learned to look over my shoulder without looking over my shoulder. I wonder if Gold was warning me off about the guards, the one group where he couldn’t bring his menace to bear. They march me through the yard’s anodized light to the admin office where the Japanese trustee waits with his clipboard. His skin looks pasty like life has been sucked out of him. He makes a checklist of my possessions, including a letter from my wife saying I can expect divorce papers soon. I sign the trustee’s form.

A couple of days before, Rub told me I'd probably be sent to Lompoc on the California coast. "Watch your back," he said. "That place is no joke.”

With a rattling of keys and chains, the marshals cuff and shackle me. A marshal takes my box, and they load me on a bus, the lone passenger. I look out the window but can’t see anything. It’s dark, and the anodized lights obliterate the sky.

end of story

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