Penitentiary Tales: A Love Story

All my major works have been written in prison. I would recommend prison not only to aspiring writers but to aspiring politicians, too.

       —Jawaharlal Nehru

North One 11A.jpgComing Soon!

Penitentiary Tales: a Love Story recounts the escapades of one Dean Davis, a thirty-something, educated, straight white male from the affluent community of Sausalito, in Marin County, California, who is sent to an Illinois prison dominated by a daunting, ethnically diverse population of inmates from the mean streets of Chicago. How does he do his time? What challenges does he meet? How does the experience affect his social and political consciousness? Addressing issues of race and gender, it is at once a serious inquiry into the minds and hearts of the marginalized and the oppressed, and a bit of a romp. It will appeal to adventurous and intelligent readers of all persuasions who appreciate a literary walk on the wild side. Pending final revision, it should be available in the first quarter of 2019.

Excerpt: The Boys on the Block

Wherein our protagonist, Dean Davis, is assigned a cell, 11A, in housing unit North One, and is introduced to a few of the folks who will be his friends and neighbors for a long, long time.


THE DUCT WORK THAT CARRIED fresh air from cell to cell also served as a conduit for sound, especially after lock-up, when the block was relatively quiet. Then you could hear the strains of music wafting up from radios and boom boxes still playing, and sometimes the clacking of typewriter keys into the wee hours. Such was the case the night before Dean Davis first met Wilbur.

Davis had thought the faint clacking that echoed each riff of his own on the keyboard was some kind of aberration, a warping of the atmosphere that caused the sound to be absorbed by, then released back into, the night air. Or a warping of the atmosphere between his ears, caused by the long succession of nights locked up and alone. Either way, when his passage on the keys was brief, it was followed by a brief rejoinder. When his passage was sustained, likewise its echo. This continued for a half hour, then ceased, as though the warp in one atmosphere or another had corrected itself.

The next evening, soon after he had settled himself in and commenced typing, there was a knock at the door. He opened it on an inmate he had seen around but never talked to, a wiry, leprechaun-looking guy with a knobby chin, long nose and ears, and eyes set deep in the shadow of craggy brows. Davis fancied the man might have been born and raised in a tangle of gnarly tree roots. He smiled a crooked smile and said, Is it soup yet?

Is what soup yet?

What you’re cooking up.

I’m not cooking up anything.

You know what I mean.

Afraid I don’t.

I write, too. Good stuff: Freaky sex. Necrophilia. Doppelgangers. Time and space. The living dead. Did you hear me talking to you last night?


Through the ventilation system: Clickety clack, clickety clack.

Oh, that was you.

I was letting you know you’re not alone.

I like alone, especially when I am.

We’re fellow writer’s. We need each other.

I don’t know about that.

Let’s read each other’s stuff. What do you write?

I don’t think of myself as a writer. I keep a journal to stay busy. Character sketches. Snatches of dialogue. Incidents and anecdotes. A Boys On The Block kind of thing. There’s nothing for you to read.

You should write stories. Make stuff up. Reality is boring. Too many rules. When you’re doing hard time like I am, you want to create worlds where anything goes. Right now, I’m writing the biography of Mother Goose.

You’re making it up?

No, in this case, it’s the absolute truth. She wants it told, but she doesn’t write, so I’m interviewing her in my cell. Sometimes in her cell, which is next to mine.

I see. Mother Goose is here in Lime Ridge, is she?

Yes, we’re lucky to have her. She’s a rare specimen. You’d be surprised. I’m doing her childhood first. I call it Bird Interrupted. When she asked me to write her story, I said, Can I borrow a quill? But she didn’t get the joke. I’m Wilbur, by the way.

He held out his hand. Davis took it. He said, I’m Dean.

I know. Dean Davis. AKA Double Dee. Busted for dope. Doing a dime, a nickel with good time. Address of record, San Francisco.

You know more about me than I know about you.

I work in the Captain’s office. I pull records. I know who’s who and what’s what.

Wilbur looked past Davis at the big typewriter on his desk.

IBM Selectric, he said.

Courtesy of my wife, Davis said. She’s got my back.

It’s beauty, Wilbur said. I use a vintage Remington. It has the soul of an old machine. Would you like to read her bio when I’m done?

The bio of who?

Of Mother Goose! Are you listening?

Sure, I’d like to read it.

It’s not up to me, Wilbur said. It’s up to her. She might not like you.

Davis suppressed a laugh. He said, Well, be sure and let me know.

You bet I will, Double Dee. We’ll talk again.

He glanced up and down the corridor, then walked quickly away.

FROM TIME TO TIME, WILBUR would bring Davis a story to read. He’d knock softly, and when the door opened, his eyes would dart left and right like roaches when the lights come on. He’d pull the manuscript out from the front of his shirt and hand it to Davis and say, You’ll like this, then walk away with his hands in his pockets and his head down and his shoulders up around his ears.

His stories were eclectic and bizarre: tales of animals that gave birth to humans, and of humans that gave birth to animals; of mannequins that mated after the department store closed, and gave birth to little mannequins; of plants and trees that uprooted themselves in the night and rearranged the forest floor; of a man and a dog who lived alone together and stared into each others eyes until they traded places and the man became the dog and sat at the feet of the dog who became the man, and sat in the man’s chair by the fireplace and smoked his pipe and thought the world was a mysterious place; of planets that communicated with one another telepathically, and told jokes about the planets in other galaxies; of the oldest boulder in the world, which served as a repository of every thought, word and deed of every sentient being on earth from the beginning to the end of time, and of the idiot savant who set out to find it; of children who went missing for a day and returned with a hundred years of knowledge and wisdom which they had to conceal from grown-ups.

His stories were a record of dream states and delirium. His sentences meandered for a quarter of a page, with baffling metaphors and labyrinthine syntax, but always you came to the end of them with a head full of images and ideas; and to the end of the story with the feeling of having been somewhere outside yourself…which served one well who was strictly confined.

Davis had been reluctant to read Wilbur’s stuff at first, but soon found himself dropping by the man’s cell, sticking his head in the door and saying, Is it soup yet?


INMATE ERIC BERSERKER BORG claims to trace his lineage to the days of Harold Fairhair, first King of Norway, circa 900 AD. His ancestors, he informs Davis, were of an especially vicious breed of Viking Warrior called Berserkers who worshipped the Norse God Odin and fought in a trance-like state induced by ingestion of the psychotropic Russian mushroom amanita muscaria and copious amounts of mead. While thus intoxicated, a state called berserkergang, they fought with the strength and ferocity of wild animals. They would cleave an enemy in two with a single blow of a broad-axe or sword. Impervious to pain, they ate their own shields; they swallowed burning coals; their limbs continued to fight after being severed.

Harold Fairhair owed much of his dominion to the employment of Berserkers as shock troops when sending his army into battle.

Eric tells Davis how his motorcycle club, The Berserkergangers, would gather in the woods at night around a roaring fire, ingest the drug Phencyclidine, PCP, commonly known as Angel Dust, drink copious amounts of vodka, strip to the waist, and in a frenzied state fight each other till the sun rose over the tree line. On more than one occasion, they roared away on their choppers leaving the ravaged body of one of their own behind.

Their savagery was legend and they were feared by other clubs as far east as New Jersey.

Eric The Berserker Borg is tall and brawny, blue-eyed with a wide nose, wavy orange hair to his shoulders and a full beard braided to his navel. Sections of broom straw pierce his nipples. Davis imagines him in a horned helmet, his big-knuckled hands and his thick, tattoo-covered forearms swinging a broad-axe at his torso, cleaving him in two.

Davis has seen him on the yard, huddled with others of his ilk. They seem of another race, from another time and place. They seem to be waiting…

Eric tells Davis that his ambition is to die on the battlefield and be selected by the Valkyrie—fierce female virginal Viking warriors who descend from the sky on fiery steeds and decide who will live and who will die and who will be spirited away to Valhalla to again drink copious amounts of mead with his fellows and to revel in the glory of Odin. At the moment of his being chosen, Eric tells Davis, the Northern Lights will blaze across the sky and announce his ascension into Valhalla.

Berserker’s blue eyes bore into Davis, inviting him to share in his vision. Davis wonders if the Northern Lights descend as far South as Illinois. Berserker reaches out suddenly and grabs his forearm and exclaims, What a fucking waste, Davis! I could fill that arm with creatures seen only on the far side of Nifleheim. I have been there and back!

Davis assumes Nifleheim is some bleak nether region in Norse Mythology. Berserker’s intense stare tells Davis he hasn’t been back from there for very long. He attempts to withdraw his arm slowly, but it’s held in a powerful grip. He’s wary of making any sudden moves or saying something offensive. He says cautiously: I’ve almost gotten tattooed a few times, Berserker, but I’ve always declined, worried I’d change my mind and wouldn’t like it anymore. Then what? You can’t wash them off. But I do love the art. In fact, I once painted faces at festivals and fairs, of flowers and fairies, lions, tigers and bears. On the faces of children. Nothing like what you do, though. I’ve seen Pauly’s creature—wowza, you’re a fucking artist!

Berserker releases his arm and says incredulously: Davis, you must be kidding me, Bro—that’s how I got my start! Painting kids’ faces! I set up a booth at County Fairs up and down the state. Kids and their mommies and daddies would line up half a fucking block.

No shit, Davis says, imagining Berserker’s bulk towering over a child, the protective parent looking on apprehensively.

I did the cute little animal stuff, too, Davis, then I started doing dope and having visions and my pictures got weird: demons and creatures and clowns with crazy eyes. The kids liked it but the parents didn’t. I went out of business. I couldn’t do cute anymore. I became an apprentice at a tattoo parlor. Bikers liked my shit. I opened my own shop. Between my art and dealing out the back door, I made lots of dough. I bought a chopper and started the Berserkergangers. Well, fuck a duck, Davis! We’re fellow artists. Let me do you, man! No charge.

Let me think about it, Berserker.

Okay, you think about it, Berserker says a little peevishly. You come around when you’re ready.

Berserker unravels one of his beard-braids and from the midst of its twining pulls out a thin joint. He turns on the small electric fan atop his grey metal cabinet and directs the streaming air to the window in the back of his cell. He hands Davis the joint and a plastic lighter and says, Blow it out the window. Together they finish the joint, alternately toking and blowing the smoke into the wintry darkness beyond. The weed is deceptively smooth and sweet and Davis feels immediately altered. Berserker says, Let’s talk business.

Davis doesn’t want to talk business, but he’ll listen. He says, What do you have in mind? He sits on the toilet and listens while Berserker sits on his bunk and strokes his beard and proposes that his people in Illinois ship top grade Columbian weed to Davis’ people on the West Coast. He says Mexican weed is trash, they both know it, those beaners have gotten lazy, they’ve had a monopoly too long, but Columbians are smart, they put out a product that is pretty, and potent, and the price is right, and with his source on the Gulf of Mexico, and Davis’ market on the West Coast, they can both make serious money right here in the penitentiary!

For a moment, Davis allows himself the fantasy of doing business from behind bars—it has a certain appeal; it seems a natural extension of the last decade of his life—but the excitement of pulling off the next big deal is a thing of the past and he intends to leave it there…and if he ever were to do business again, would it be with a man who eats lizards on the yard and aspires to be borne into Valhalla by Virgins on fiery steeds? Well…maybe. He’ll never know. Wary of offending his host a second time, having declined his offer of a free tattoo, he tells him he’s flattered by his proposal, that a few years ago he would have died to have a good Columbian connection, but unfortunately his operation is now defunct; he no longer has a market on the West Coast. After he was busted he spent all his time and money appealing his conviction. His people have since gone their way. But if he were looking for a partner, Berserker would be his first choice.

Berserker looks at him sideways. All right, Davis, he says, I’ll buy that, but if anything changes, you let me know. I won’t be hard to find. Meanwhile, you want to get loaded, I’m your man. Pauly will tell you when I’m holding.

I appreciate that, Davis says, and he does. He’s gotten what he came for: a source for reefer and having made the acquaintance of a character unlike any he was likely to meet on the streets of Sausalito. He feels like a fortunate man…

…He also feels very stoned. In the cell with Berserker, his high had grown slowly, imperceptibly, like a stalk of bamboo. Now his heart races and his feet don’t touch the ground. The corridor is hazy with cigarette smoke and steam from the shower, an eerie nether region the inhabitants of which walk in slow motion and speak an alien tongue, like refugees from Dylan’s Desolation Row. He is greeted by several as he makes his way to the sanctuary of his own cell but their words are nonsensical and he can only smile lamely and say, You bet.


ABEL CARTER’S CLAIM TO FAME is that his great-great-grandmother was a slave on a cotton plantation owned by the great-great-grandfather of President Jimmy Carter. A light-skinned African-American with short white hair dusting his head like a layer of soot, a twinkle in his eye, and false teeth that are sometimes in his mouth, sometimes not, Carter claims the President to be his cousin a few times removed. While the truth of his claim cannot be verified, it is undoubtedly true that he cooks up one hell of a batch of hooch.

Carter says there’s been a liquor-still in his family going all the way back to the Civil War, and even though prohibition ended fifty years ago, folks in the hills of Georgia prefer his family’s bathtub gin to the store-bought kind, it is that good. When Carter migrated to Chicago a long time ago and got locked up for an unspecified crime for an unspecified number of years he brought his moonshine-making skills in with him. At irregular intervals, he cooks up a gallon or two of exotic brew for distribution among those inmates fortunate enough to be on his short list of clientele.

His concoctions are always delightful: some combination of apples, oranges, raisins, prunes, canned pineapple and fruit cocktail—whatever has been on the chow hall menu the previous month and is made available by his contact in the kitchen, Stan The Man, introduced to him by Dean Davis, hence the latter’s inclusion on Carter’s list.

Davis feels the Universe smiling when on a rare day the availability of Carter’s hooch and that of Berserker’s cannabis coincide.


Portrait Of A Prison Cell

Wherein Davis departs the cell that has been his home for a long, long time…

MOTHER GOOSE GAVE Dean Davis colored pens and pencils and a twelve by sixteen inch drawing pad. Booker T gave Davis a week off from his duties in the welding shop. Davis sat ten hours a day for seven straight days on the cold concrete floor of the corridor outside his cell and rendered in meticulous detail the cell and its contents, down to the leafless branches of the trees visible through the narrow vertical slit of window in the back wall through which Davis had watched and felt and smelt the seasons change more than a dozen times; down to the titles on the spines of his many dog-eared books that had been his faithful companions for more than a thousand nights; down to the letters and the images on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle dated November 12th, 1987; down to the knots in the laces of Lola’s first pair of tennis shoes, sent to Davis after her first birthday; down to the wave in the hair of Lucy in the photograph in the heart-shaped frame crafted of cigarette package paper by Cornelius Corn Dog Watson, the self-proclaimed real live nigger who years ago had vowed to return and make the joint jump; down to the stitching in the blue denim jacket hooked up real tough by Marvelous Marvin Mayo, tailor extraordinaire and previous occupant of the cell who had himself moved on to the honor dorm.

Because the marks made by the pens and the pencils were not erasable, Davis could make no mistakes. He would meditate long and hard on a feature of his cell and when it was fixed in his mind he would put his hand to paper and capture it quickly and surely. Fellow inmates stepped over and around him, sometimes stopping to marvel at his work.

On the morning of the eighth day, Davis transferred his belongings into a white canvass cart. He rolled up his portrait of North One 11A, secured it with a rubber band and laid it gently on top. He stood a long while regarding the now empty cell, then turned and pushed his cart up the corridor, down which came a new inmate pushing a cart of his own. It’s a good house, Davis said in passing. A very good house.