Sensei’s in good shape, 68 years old, an undefeated foe of the Michigan Department of Corrections. He carries himself so well, like he only been in for a few days, a couple weeks maybe. He prowls in a cage that seems to be made just for him, the size and parameter, for him, the square box for his hands to be cuffed and uncuffed–for him.
“Do that last pushup again,” Sensei says with a raspy voice.
“Get out my pocket, old man, dis my money.” I say, before forcing life out my body, all the aggression garbled with one push. “Ahhh!”
“That’s good money,” he responds.
“The price you pay is results, remember that.”
“I gotta be in debt then, cuz I keep paying,” I say with a slight flex, gathering breath around the clamor of 16 cages filled with yelling bodies.
Sensei’s prison days began in the late ‘80s, far from how it is now. On a summer day in ‘88, he presumably walked out a two man cell, maybe to the day room to microwave a cookup, minding his own in a packed unit before a random shakedown became extremely unpleasant.
790 miles away, I had to been about six. Probably riding the blue Huffy bike my grandma bought at a garage sale down a neighborhood street. I would cycle backward hard to break and slide into a half circle as the older homies did on their dirt bikes, glancing perfectly at the girls watching from the sidewalks. I wonder if the applied pressure from Sensei, Sensei’s knife barrelling into a chest plate, equated to my pushing back a pedal to break, before distorting a half?
I glare back at Sensei finishing his set of pushups, a straight 200, pushing the ground down into the shifting earth, the ground the MDOC wants him in. He is fighting with all of his life–literally.
If he’d killed an inmate, somebody like me, he would have done four years in the hole, tops, with good behavior. Knowing that a criminal has more than one face, more than one title—Correctional Officer, Administrative, Warden—makes doing time so much harder than it should be, and maybe that’s the purpose. But what if a second chance is lost in survival from a decision forced out of fear? Is that what drove him to it?
I try to detect breakage, a slip of consciousness, or a cracked flaw in logic. I want to know what it look like to lose one’s mind, so maybe I can prevent it, but nothing. Just a wall as solid as the ones that hold us. I think about doing 30 years in the hole–segregation–never allowed out because of a split decision of life or death, a choice he made so long ago. I become dizzy and see spots floating where they shouldn’t be. The gathering of it, death probably, the insurmountable.
I shake out of deep thought. The COs’ walkies squawk.
“Good money,” I says, as the officers collect us from the sun.
In my cell I pace. Write. Write. Right? Think. Pace. Pace. Losing yourself in an off-corner, square room is hysterical, but Sensei stayed strong for so long where men break like the icicles hanging from gutters, to the point of crashing suicide. The hole is built for suicide. The loop, the mind; the rope, sleep.
The next day, I greet Sensei as a CO dog-walks me past his cage, a leash on the handcuffs clamped to my wrist.
“Did you catch that movie last night?” he says.
I stride like a pit bull and bark. “Yeah. I saw it with my moms when I was younger.‘Sister can’t fly off one wing,’ I quote, before laughing at the line in the movie Sparkle. The officer locks me in the cage and uncuffs me. Through the octagon squares, I see Sensei stare out into space, frozen as if he’s finally being called up to heaven, into the pearly gates.
“What’s up?” I say.
He breaks from his trance, his only vehicle of travel.
“Nah, Buck…I’m just trying to understand how she could fall for a man who is so foul to her. Nigga tried that with my sister, and I had to make that decision. Why?” And we share that horizontal gaze, silent except for the other inmates in their cages talking over each other in a clamor, and I know the question isn’t for me, or anyone for that matter. I want to ask about him ever getting out of the hole, if he has the opportunity, or if he still has family on the outside. But I know there’s an immense amount of pressure behind that back pedal push, and for now, I will not pull off on that half circle. At least not today.
I step to the fence, find a hole to clearly look through and say, “Stix beat dog ass in that alley doe.” I laugh until I notice I’m forcing it.
Tuesdays are ride-ins. I stand at my cell door, hoping to see a familiar scruffy face as the inmates pile in like sardines. One officer shoves a younger guy, probably about 18, in a cell without inspection. He has a dead man’s number, one that Sensei probably knew from back in his heyday, before death gave that number to this youngster across the hall.
As soon as the CO leaves, I say, “Where you coming from?”
He goggles like a deer hearing noise in a bush, all doe-eyed and goofy.
“Me?” He points at hisself.
“Who else, muthafucka!”
He mouths an “oh” and returns, “I didn’t even do shit. They just fuckin wit’ me for no reason, bro. They broke my TV, came in the day room and cuffed me up…next day I’m on the bus.”
“Yeah. That’s fucked up.” I can tell by how the CO pushed him into that cell that there is an issue he may not see, maybe he’s not conscious that he is supposed to be suffering. He’s young and the COs will see to it to break him, his will; they want to take everything he knows and squeeze the life from every thought of who he is, to be a was. To know if they want to, they can. And the officers who will administer this discipline will break their own rules to dim the soul because we’re all animals in need of a breaking. I want to tell him that he has to lay back, get off their radar, that they will do anything to circumvent any fight in us all. But instead, I irritatedly nod, descend back into my own misery.
Friday, seg yard is late. Sensei greets me as I dog walk past his cage.
“What we doing today, old man?”
“I thought today was your day,” he says.
I look up, trying to get back on flow. “Yeah, you right.” I think of a past workout we’d done as Sensei looks in my direction, kind of through me as his brow slants to a thinking pose. I snarl back at the too-long glare, readying myself to finally see his flaw shine through brighter than this muggy sun above.
He finally speaks. “Something up…”
“What?” I say.
He wipes his face with his hand, which makes me come out of my workout defense mode. He saunters to the front of the cage, presses close to it, fingers gripping outside of the square pattern like vines on a trellis.
“I tried to look at the sun today…and I kept hitting my head–every time, man.” His voice shudders. “I can smell the foulness in my sink, the calling of my name in the pipes.” He pauses, worry lines stressing across his forehead, and I’m now pressing against the fence to make sure I’m hearing him clearly.
“Last night, I reached down into the drain, you know, to find out what it was–the smell, and…and…”
“What…what was it?” I rush.
He shakes his head. “It’s not important. Don’t worry–”
“I’m right here…it’s cool.” I quickly regain his attention. I want him to explain this cold world, the danger of closeness, to pour 30 years of taming on a 45-minute yard.
After the long silence between us, he says, “Don’t know really.” And at that moment, seeing him in deep thought, like the years finally answered him, as if life folded into its existence in some kind of embrace, I know this “forever” in segregation is eating him alive. And for the first time, I’m witnessing him being swallowed by the system; the close mouth of night, to the wide mouth of morning, the smell of bodies stuck in the teeth of years.
That night, I sit. I think. I extract. I see Sensei as a human being, no more harmless than anyone could be in an environment as corrupt as this. The MDOC sees him as a threat, a murderer of their kind, but he is an old man battling a forever fight stemming from that split decision made 30 years ago. Still alive and intact, but for how long?
I shiver at his demise, almost vomit at a smell wafting out of the steel sink; all this washing away of pain, an image, the people who were here before me, their agony filthy in the metal pipes, sputtering. I don’t have the heart to reach down in there, don’t want to know what gargles down into that darkness. I start to walk in my cell, fearing my unravelling. I CAN SMELL IT NOW.
Two in the morning, young dog across the hall is arguing with a CO. In my state I try to ignore it, try to pedal along my own lonely street.
“Uncover your window!” the sergeant demands, standing off to the side. Nothing. The sergeant calls his name, “Jones!” and by this time I’m at the door–we’re all at the door, like all of our names is being simultaneously called: Jones, Jones, Jones, Jones, Jones.
“Why am I up here?” he finally says. “I didn’t do nothing.”
The sergeant nods his head. “I believe you, buddy, trust me I do. But you can’t cover your window up. “We have to make sure you’re alive when we make our rounds.” The sergeant redirects. “Cuff up. I’mma pull you out. We’ll get to the bottom of this.” The whirl of a door echoes down the wing.
Jones complies, not knowing it’s too late for a pep talk. The other inmates sense this intrusion, too. As he goes down the hall toward a shower, fear strains his face. Two minutes later, Jones wildly wails, kicks the shower door against the loop of a lock, the metal clinking.
I can’t sleep. I ride the knocks all the way to heaven, prayer my only engine. Six in the morning it stops. 6:30 I begin my day. I stand over the sink, twist my face at the smell crawling up from the drain, see in the mirror the redness in my eyes. I haven’t hit my head on a cloud yet gazing at the sun and a slight smile sneaks across my face, understanding just a fraction. Outside in a yard cage, I wait for Sensei to walk out on his leash. Fuck it. I’mma ask him what really happened for him to be buried alive in segregation. Now that I think of it: the days are the dirt being shoveled in a hole. He finally makes it out, four cages away.
“Old man!” I yell.
“What’s going on, Buck.”
I shake my head. “Same shit…I do gotta ask you something.”
He’s all ears the way he clings to the fences like a vine. “Did you really kill a CO?”
He shakes his head. “That’s the reason they won’t let me out to G.P. I’ve been ticket free for about 10 years and…administration won’t let me out. It takes one CO to feel unsafe.” Sensei steps back to dodge my next question, but I throw a curve.
“Some of these bitches deserve it.”
“Nobody deserves to die–don’t ever say that. Sometimes to not fight…is to fight.” His lip curls. “Let’s start this workout.”
I ask nothing else. This time we work out in silence, no motivation pulling strength, him letting his holier-than-thou comment sit. But I can’t accept it.
On my way in from yard, I see Jones in the first cell, which is for observation; ten officers crowd around his door.
“You need to calm down” is all I hear as I go down the hall and into my cell. Immediately, they close my door flap, shutting me out from seeing anything. Hearing turns into my seeing, COs telling Jones to cuff up again. I go to the back window and see the inmates are still in limbo, waiting to be delivered to their cells like packages. Sensei paces like a panther in his cage, knowing its own captivity. Or does he sense the same injustice that put him in this situation going on 30 feet away from his cage?
The whirling sound of a door opening echoes down the wing, and what sounds like bodies hitting cement; thump, skin against skin. I run back to the door.
“You’re hurting me, CO? Help! Please, no…” Jones yelps.
A faint whisper…stupid nigger…fucking CO…shut up…spread that…
A whining guttural sound gurgles out into the hall like a newborn’s first cry. The break in between the screaming “helps” is the wait for the infant to breathe. Baby breathe!
Inmates on C-wing press and bang on their doors. “Leave him alone, fuck boy! Come do that to me.”
I’m confused, impatient. Why are the COs doing this while Jones is handcuffed? Then I think of Sensei who is outside, and what he would do–has already done.