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An excerpt from
Steel Toes
by Eddie Little
© 2001 Eddie Little. All rights reserved.

 


Steel Toes by Eddie Little
"Eddie Little knows the truth, and he amps it out like a pack of wolves on angel dust"
—Andrew Vachss

The thing about trying to escape is that trying really doesn't cut it. Getting caught is a real drag.

In solitary now, ricocheting between rage and numbness, watching huge flakes of snow drifting through the night sky, floating past the bars, then through the chicken wire, and sticking against the heavy screening in front of the Plexiglas window. Each flake unique.

Snow swirling, reflecting all the colors of the rainbow as it melts...sometimes just tinted misty pink, blurred with the blood dripping from a cut that keeps reopening over my eye.

Spotlights glaring behind the flakes, the cold coming through the walls and into my bones. Each breath sending a visible plume of mist from my mouth to fog on the Plexiglas, only to recede to nothingness.

Gray world, gray concrete, grinding pain, throbbing, fading from one wound to call attention to another. Every move smashing through my kidneys, reminding me of where the steel toes did their work.

Beyond the snow, the concertina wire fence the only break as empty cornfields stretch to eternity. Coming through the floor the vibrations of the train that rockets by every night, too far away to see. The sound of freedom, audible now, vibrations and noise. The train whistle shrieks across the Indiana farmland, echoing through the concrete room that contains me. Growing fainter, now gone like the snowflakes, like the condensed breath on the Plexiglas.

Escape.

This is my second attempt in God's year of 1975. Twice tried, twice failed, this time after being chased for miles across snow-covered farmland, thinking that running across frozen streams, breaking through the thin ice, would make my pursuers as wet and miserable as it made me, that they would tire of the chase, give up. I'd get away.

Wrong.

When the trusties finally trapped me this time, they beat me senseless.

Eight of them caught me, circled, and started punching and kicking till I hit the ground. Then they went to work with their boots. Did such a good job that I felt a flash of gratitude when the guards finally arrived and called them off, saving me for Indiana's quaint custom of the strap.

Bruised, bloodied, regardless, you still have another beating coming when you try to escape. After you've had the strap applied, you think twice before running. Or don't think about it at all.

Or, if you're like me, the need for freedom is with you like a bad tooth, no respite. Constantly reminding you that this is an unacceptable situation, making you apply every brain cell you have to solving the problem of getting away. Not trying. Doing it.

Turning from the window, I take in my world. Four feet by eight feet. Toilet and sink combined, chipped gray porcelain. Steel door painted brown. Bunk with the springs so shot out that the weight of the paper-thin mattress brings the middle to the concrete floor. Walls made of brick, with names and dates carved into it going back way to before I was born, all of eighteen years ago.

Never occurs to me that eighteen isn't much. For me, it's old, an eternity of criming and drugs and cops and prison.

The accessories: A green wool government surplus blanket. A roll of toilet paper that doubles as a pillow propped on top of the New Testament Good News for Modern Man, the only reading material allowed. Issued when you enter along with the blanket and toilet paper.

 

Lots of time to think here, to feel the pain of the beatings you got, the first by your peers who actually ran you down. That's one of the things the red cap trusties are for in this particular institution.

The second beating by the man with the strap.

Now solitary, an opportunity to read the "good book" and contemplate your sins while freezing. Plainfield, Indiana, temporary home to John Dillinger, Charles Manson, and now me.

Pulling a piece of spring out of the bunk and resuming the work that's kept me entertained for the last few days, I keep carving the words "No hope—without dope" into the brick wall.

This is one poem I won't sign. Doesn't matter; it's signed in my soul. Dope was the answer to all the questions. The thing that kept me alive. Salvation. But damaging state property is rewarded by corporal punishment, the strap.

The piece of spring steel starts to rip through the ends of my fingers, tearing open the blisters already formed by the constant friction, and I quit my artistic endeavors for the night.

Do push-ups until my body is shaking from the effort and collapse on the bunk that folds in the middle and watch the steam rise from my mouth.

Staring at the ceiling, thinking of all the things I would be doing if I was out, getting loaded, getting laid, getting rich, it seems like it's all in the getting. Not being. Getting. The knowledge that whatever you get you're gonna lose has been there since I was a small child.

 

For a year or so leading up to the bust that landed me here, it had been so good—a drug run and crime spree that hit the sky, with a high of being in love and on top of the world, rolling so hard that I felt like Genghis Khan, like Elvis Presley, like Billy the fuckin' Kid.

Like I was blessed with a state of grace beyond comprehension. And the spree rolled down until I was so lost in my own inner pain that the only answer was death.

And I did my best to achieve that. The wonders of modern medical science brought me back from a massive overdose. Now I'm paying the price for my lifestyle.

Being very young and not overly smart, I have no concept of consequences, don't know that I and the people I loved were statistics, cartoon characters waiting to be taken off the page.

Junkies don't live long and I know of nothing except better living through chemistry. I still don't understand that the narcotics that kept me sane also doomed anything other than the ongoing pursuit of more narcotics. And prison.

Now, in solitary, wanting to go back, and do things different somehow, knowing I can't, wanting to touch the ghosts that populate this tiny cell and knowing I can't do that either.

They took the only love I knew with them when they died.

Mel, my mentor, my coach, my guide, taught me how to be a thief, how to be a junkie. And he taught me that someone actually could care what happened to me. And Rosie—I never knew I could love someone, never knew how to say it, never knew she could be taken from me just like that, but that's the way it played out. Welcome to reality, pal.

The end of this last run, the death of people I loved, only set the feeling of hopelessness in stone. Losing my freedom is nothing new, but acceptance is a concept I don't understand, and people dying, getting busted, all these things make me mad, beyond mad. On the edge of berserk.

I know I'm guilty as Satan himself, that the situation I'm in is self-created, but that doesn't change the desire to destroy everything I can before I'm destroyed.

Guilt and pain and anger rolling through me like the Union Army rolling through the South, burning and pillaging everything in its path, no pity, no prisoners...my own brain doing Grant's march through my soul. "The Night They Burned Old Dixie Down" playing every second and every minute that I can't keep the volume low enough to make it inaudible.

Pulling the cover around me, wrapping my feet; rolling as tightly in it as possible to try and contain a little warmth. The toilet paper on top of the Bible doesn't make much of a pillow but it's better than nothing. Feeling the rage, not tired but gonna get to sleep eventually. Beat these sons of bitches out of a few hours.

Listening to Mr. Washington, the fat little black man who runs the night watch on solitary row, boning Candy as the sounds come through the walls.

First the squeaking of bedsprings, then Candy's falsetto voice rising louder and louder, sounding just like a girl coming, finally Washington's loud groans, then silence.

Candy's a punk who caused so much trouble on the yard that they pulled her/him out of population so he/she wouldn't be getting sodomized and causing fights.

Now Candy's warder has fallen in love. A time-honored tradition of victims getting further victimized by their protectors.

The word is that Candy isn't a punk voluntarily, Candy was once named Charlie. After about the hundredth rape he became Candy. Femme fatale, heartbreaker extraordinaire.

Now the joke is on the man. Ray Charles could have seen the wreck coming. For those of us on lockdown their nightly sessions break up the monotony.

The next thing of any interest is breakfast and that's a long way away, listening to my stomach growl and doing my best to ignore it.

Back inside my head, trying to stay warm, willing my mind to shut down and shut up and finally drifting to the edge of sleep.

The first rays of the sun turn the absolute blackness into pewter. The distant rumbling of the morning train rattles through the cell, and the sound of steel wheels precedes the howling of the whistle, and from the back of my mind comes a memory of a book by Kerouac or London or somebody and I settle into sleep knowing how to escape. Make it over the razor wire, run like hell, and just jump the train as it flies by. Nothing to it, right?

Waking up at noon, eating the cold oatmeal from breakfast and the sandwich that is lunch at the same time. Full.

 

Stare through the window at the grainy dismal sky and again revisit the crime spree that landed me here till the age of twenty-one. Three and a half years to go, longer than forever.

Wondering if I could have made things different, somehow; wanting to be living like a high-rolling, rock-and-rolling, dope-shooting, pistol-packing, Teflon-coated fool...then my reality, the concrete and steel surrounding me and my complete aloneness, comes crashing back, like an instant replay from hell.

Still seeing Rosie on that stretcher, dying from pain and a life of abuse and infection...bitter, failing, losing her. Grieving all the friends lost and the unnamable emotions that tear through my insides shut my brain down, screaming to itself. Stop it...leave me alone...shut the fuck up...and I smash my forehead into the wall, letting the physical pain cancel the hole in my soul.

Sitting on the bunk staring at my bare feet and directing my thoughts into safer channels, searching my memory for what it was I read about jumping trains and coming up with no useful knowledge.

Just knowing that it's been done before is enough. It's only a matter of time, getting over the razor-wire fences and making it to the train tracks before my pursuers; it's what I'm living for. Picturing it, seeing it work, feeling my freedom, is the ray of hope that is going to keep me breathing in and out till I put it together.

 

Now I know I was using what they call visualization, although I'd never heard the term then. I thought of it as daydreaming, seeing myself catching hold of the flying train, making it to whatever city it first stopped at, stealing a car, then picking up some money and a new ID from friends outside of Chicago. East Coast bound, going fast. New faces, places, dissolving my past, leaving no traces. That my pain would go wherever I went is something I didn't realize. The going, getting, doing seemed like the way out. That's the trap.

 

Time expands and contracts, goes slow, goes fast. The one thing you can count on is that it passes. Good or bad it ain't gonna last...

 

When they bust Washington and Candy it becomes spoken history at Plainfield. Word had gotten out, as it was bound to. The superintendent and three guards lie doggo, hidden in one of the empty cells, waiting, and when the creaking springs and groaning start echoing through the cellblock they close their trap.

Washington's denials and Candy's shrieks ring through the concrete corridors. The superintendent's bellowing drowns them out: "Perverts, goddamn perverts! Disgusting animals!"

Washington's crying now, and even as his tears have no effect on the outcome, Candy's psychotic break goes directly into reformatory legend. The voice that booms through the cells is that of a woman gone insane: "I'm gonna kill ya, motherfucker, gonna kill ya!"

The sounds of battle echo through the concrete rooms, screaming and flesh striking flesh. The fight lasting far longer than it should have with four grown men trying to subdue one skinny little boy.

My hands are laced under my head, the words "Sock 'em up, Candy, put one on the sons of bitches" running through my mind, and without thought I'm on my feet screaming for a miracle.

The cellblock explodes with the yells of every kid in there. "Kill 'em, Candy, beat the motherfuckers down, boy! Go, go, kill!"

As the yelling fades the only sound remaining is Washington crying and the whispering of the guards. Like whispering will wipe out the screams of seconds before. Finally the echoing footsteps of the trusties taking Candy/Charlie out on a stretcher. So much for the meek inheriting the earth.

 

Sunup to sundown time slips by. Read the Bible, masturbate, and do push-ups. Every Wednesday morning you get biscuits and gravy for breakfast, something to look forward to.

Solitary.

Eventually you reach a state of Buddha-like nonexistence, need nothing, want nothing. Floating behind your eyes. People pride themselves on getting there through meditation.

I think it's harder to come back. Reentering the world after enough time being your own universe is brutal, being reborn with no skin, flayed nerve endings screaming.

The sound of locks turning tears into my sleep, the spotlights outside have been turned off, so morning must be close as the light from the corridor slices into my cell. Smith, the day guard for the row, yells, "Rise and shine, give God his glory, motherfucker. Get your skinny butt movin'."

Fighting my way back to consciousness, swinging my feet to the floor and staring up at the balding, inbred, potbellied cracker who cackles like the half-wit he is. He spits a stream of tobacco juice onto the floor and throws the mud-caked khakis I ran in, now wrapped around my combat boots, at my head. Jerking my face out of the way and catching my clothes, grunting, "Thanks, Smith," as he relocks the door and proceeds on his rounds.

This means that my lockdown time is finished. Now it's time to get back on the yard, time to kick it with the fellas, time to learn about hopping trains, time to put my brain back into gear.

© 2001 Eddie Little. All rights reserved.

Want to read an excerpt from Eddie Little's first novel, Another Day in Paradise? Click here.



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