By John David Wolverton
You could no longer distinguish single words or even voices.
Out in the dining hall the inmates' shouting broke in waves
against the wall, reverberating from the farther wall. The floor
thrummed like a guitar string. Most of the cooks were backing
away from the service doors. They would take a step, glance back, take
another step, ready to run for the escape exit. Only three of the cooks re-
mained with Fletcher, who lay on his back with a bloody nose, clawing
the wall with one hand, unconscious.
"What's going on out there?" Willis asked from within his office.
He'd been cracking nuts behind his desk with a pair of old steel pliers
and eating them. He was balding, with puffy eyes and a mouth wide
enough to swallow a cat.
''Fletcher wanted to see what was going on out in the dining room.
He was out there for maybe thirty seconds before they beat the hell out
of him and threw him back in here.''
Willis jumped up from his chair, looking from side to side. ''Are the
doors open?" he shouted.
''No-only the one he was standing by.''
''Watch the phones,'' he said. He dropped his pliers among the nut
shells and ran past me, out of the office and up to where Fletcher lay by
I was already by the kitchen phone-the one Control One would call
on if they called. The phone had no dialing mechanism, but Control One
could call in, and usually called through the kitchen phone when they
wanted to get a count of the inmates. Willis and the three cooks stooped
over Fletcher. Willis yelled something that was lost in the roar. Then they
pulled Fletcher to a sitting position and made him lean his head back to
stop the bleeding. They were all wearing their white cooks' uniforms;
Mueller was wearing a blue baseball cap.
When I'd let Fletcher in with the inmates, the light from the high
windows didn't reach the floor. It kept the room and the men in darkness,
their prison-blue uniforms faded gray. Fifty small tables had already filled,
and men were lining against the walls and sitting on the floor. Maybe a
dozen had brought spears. Others took clubs, iron pipes, and knives from
beneath their pant legs and from under their shirts. We'd turned off the
culinary lights, so the only light in the room had been a slash of sunlight
that burned into the murals above their heads. In the murals thirteen
left-handed Indians chased buffalo across barren plains. Painted ponies
twisted under the clash of bodies, the jumble of hooves; their frightened
eyes peered through blood-spattered death masks. The Indians never died.
They leapt majestically to the backs of the buffalo, ripping with knives,
breaking hatchets across shaggy backs. The buffalo shook their enemies,
panted, stumbled, fell, rolling bloodshot eyes at the sky. I resented the
left-handedness. In first grade, my teacher said, "Don't write with your
left hand: that's the Devil's hand!" She made me stuff my hand under
my belt loops. She cut her toes off with a lawn mower the day before
Halloween and had to quit. The artist should have known better than to
have painted himself, with his left hand, doing all that killing. A left hand
is the hand of the artist, the poet. He should have known: God created
the earth with his left hand.
Franklin, the new cook, was sitting on a cutting table with his feet
tucked up under his butt in a fetal position like a gargoyle on a cathedral
wall. He was panting. He had frightened rabbit-eyes.
A couple of cooks were still trying to peek through the cracks in the
doors to the dining hall. One of them pulled Fletcher to his feet. Willis
jiggled the handle on one of the kitchen doors, then checked the electronic
lock on the big blue service doors, and finally had one of the cooks on
the far end of the kitchen check the knob on the other little regular door.
He ran back to me. ''I'm going to stay out here for a minute," he yelled
over the roar of voices. ''You stay by the office phones.''
I took three steps into the office and stopped. Willis coming in behind
bumped into me.
"Do you feel something?" I asked.
Willis hesitated. ''You mean tension? Yeah. Felt it for days.''
It hung in the air like electric cobwebs that brushed your face. ''No.
Not that. Fear. Do you feel fear?"
"You mean you're afraid, Animal?" He chuckled tight lipped.
Why didn't he think I was capable of emotion? "No--I feel fear--I
smell it in the air." I looked over my shoulder. "Is this room secure?"
''Well-yeah. Yeah. I think so,'' he said.
''Are all the knives checked in?' '
Willis' pupils didn't constrict. Nor did his nostrils flare or his lips
quiver. "Yeah, they're in."
I envisioned inmates hiding in the office, waiting for a signal to jump
the guards to get to the knife lockers and the keys. I edged past the desks,
turned the corner in the L-shaped room, and left Willis' line of sight. Willis
stayed by the door. There were only four places in the room where anyone
could hide; three were the cooks' coat lockers which sat in a row against
one wall, and the other was a crack between some shelves. I touched the
coat lockers with the back of my hand. There was a faint quivering there.
I dragged the back of my hand across the locker and stopped. The quivering
"Animal, you see anything?" Willis whispered. I didn't answer. Each
of the three lockers was large enough to hold two or three men. None were
locked. I jerked the door open and stepped back.
In the bottom of the locker, trying to conceal himself with coats, lay
a thin, red-haired inmate, shaking like a trapped mouse. He was pale and
he watched me from the corner of his eye, then turned to blink me away.
Grabbing him by the shirt collar, I threw him to the floor and stepped
on his back. I felt the lockers for movement. No one else was there.
"Find someone? Who was it?" Willis asked, stepping around the
corner and looking at the inmate on the floor.
"It's Jeffrey Owen." I patted Jeffrey's legs and back, searching for
weapons. Turning him over, I checked his sleeves and belly. When I was
satisfied he was clean, I grabbed his wrists and dragged him across the room
to the wall by the desks.
"Was he in the locker?" Willis asked.
"How long do you think he was in there?"
''The last time I saw him back here was about forty minutes ago,''
"Is he dead?"
"Poor beggar looks suffocated to me," Willis said hopefully, cracking
a nut with his pliers. It sounded like small bones breaking. His eyes bulged.
He devoured nuts. The volume of shouting in the dining hall rose; someone
"Naw, hasn't suffocated. He was looking at me when I opened the
door." Willis brushed some papers aside, sat down on the desktop, and
stared out into the kitchens. Jeffrey felt clammy. He began to moan and writhe.
Fletcher stalked into the office holding paper against his bloody nose
and spat: " Willis, call Control One. Tell them it's gonna blow any minute.
Have the SWAT team watch the back door." Turning to me he pointed
and said, ' 'Animal, what is that inmate doing in here? '' Out in the culinary
the clamour continued. Not yet, I thought. When they rise it will not be
with a roar, but a shout.
"I found him in one of the closets. He's practically unconscious. It's
Jeffrey Owen." I pulled Jeffrey over to the wall and leaned him against
it. Willis was dialing Control One.
"Jeffrey Owen? Your secretary?"
''Yeah,'' I answered.
"Old Animal sniffed out another one," Willis said, glancing at
Fletcher, then looking at the phone's mouthpiece.
" Wha . .. what was he doing in here? " Fletcher asked. I looked up
at him. ''It could have been part of a plan ... .''
"He was just hiding ," I said, looking down at Jeffrey's thin arms.
"Yeah," Fletcher grunted as he rushed back into the kitchens.
"Control One?" Willis asked, too loudly. "It's about to break. No
we haven't evac . . . " He dropped the phone. "Animal, you take the
phone. They cut me off. Tell them to get the SWAT team out back. And
get that inmate out of here! ' ' Willis ran after Fletcher, leaving me alone
with Jeffrey. Willis and Fletcher were ashen faced, like bones, and they
jerked like marrionettes as they walked. I wondered what to do with Jeffrey.
I figured he couldn't do much harm, so I left him lying in a heap on the
floor and grabbed the phone.
From the desk I could see into the kitchen. Risenmay stood in front
of the entrance of his meat cooler, wielding a boat oar that was kept to
stir the steam pots. He looked like a white walrus with his yellow moustache,
sagging jowels, and cook's uniform. He considered himself intimidating.
Franklin still huddled on the cutting table, rocking.
No one was on the phone when I picked it up. I'd heard that Control
One could monitor the phones by patching them into the intercom, making
it possible to hear what was happening everywhere at once, so I gave my
message and decided not to say anything else unless something important
happened. Jeffrey started vomiting and sobbing. I turned to watch him.
He'd flopped over on his belly. One thin arm was stretched out in front
of him, and the other held him up for a moment.
"You gonna be okay?" I asked. He didn't answer.
"Gonna be okay?"
''Give me a knife,'' he whispered.
"Not today," I said.
Jeffrey laid his head on the floor and brushed back long strands of
dark red hair.
''Mark, kill me.'' He was serious and I considered it. At times I'd stood
in the towers at night with the windows open, letting the rain wash over
me, gripping my rifle in freezing hands, wishing some loser would climb
the fence so I could shout my warning and blow him away. It had been
so long ago it seemed as if someone else had done it. I told myself that
Jeffrey's request was not unreasonable: if the riot came, he'd just be one
corpse among many. If I were willing to kill a man for climbing a fence,
I should be able to kill a man for mercy.
"You're afraid the riot won't come." Jeffrey took a deep breath,
"Mark, will you please kill me?"
"No," I answered softly.
"Then--damn you--give me a knife so I can do it myself!" he
''No.'' I glanced out toward the main kitchen doors.
"Mark, do you know what I am?"
Hearing him use my first name so often grated on my ears. I nodded.
''I'm a whore! I'm a whore!" he screamed. "I do it two, maybe three
times a day for protection. My lovers protect me. Do you know what happens
to whores in a riot?' '
I kept nodding. I had been called in to help mop up in New Mexico.
I wondered why so many of the corpses were bald until I saw the men had
been burned to death with cutting torches. Then there were the strangled
men in the cells and service tunnels; and sometimes . . . . I knew what
to expect better than he.
''They kill you! They use you to death! All of them-maybe fifteen,
sixteen.'' He gagged and vomitted again. I started laughing.
He wobbled to his knees and glared. Maybe it was just the tension,
but I couldn't stop laughing.
''You should see yourself. You' re such a mess,' ' I said. Jeffrey stared
up at me, then glanced down and self-consciously brushed at some vomit
that clung to the pocket of his shirt.
"You once told me that only a man could really love another man,"
I said. ''You were so seductive I almost believed you. I almost swore off
my wife for a week. And now you're telling me you just do it for
Jeffrey didn't answer.
"You'll go a long way for protection," I said.
Voices mingled in a scream, followed by a rise in the shouting. I felt
like it lifted me. Walrus dropped his boat oar and wallowed full tilt for
the back door, his key ring jangling at his hip. There was a flash of white
as another cook passed him.
I turned to Jeffrey. His mouth hung open. I jumped over the desk
and yelled, '' Get the hell out!' ' then grabbed his arm and started pulling him.
Jeffrey yelled over the roar, "Are you taking me with you?"
I hadn't considered. I pulled his arm so hard I was afraid it would
dislocate. He struggled to his feet. We bolted from the office and followed
the back wall past the refrigeration rooms. Jeffrey was limping.
We were halfway across the kitchen when Willis stopped me with a
wave of his hand. ''Animal! What are you doing with that inmate!' '
''Locking him in the basement.''
"Not the basement. The elevator," he ordered. Suddenly all the cooks
were piled at the front of the escape door. Sounds of shrieks and fists
slapping on flesh came from the dining hall. Some men chanted ''Burn
it down. Burn it down. Burn it down.' ' Others yelled ''No!' ' while some
just screamed. It was too early to tell who would win. The cooks stopped
and huddled around the door, ducking their heads in embarrassment at
having begun to run too soon. The change in rhythm, the ripple in tension,
had been a warning. I wondered if anyone was being beaten to death and
if anyone could stop it.
"The doors are down!" Jeffrey said in astonishment. I glanced over
my left shoulder to the heavy folding doors-glorified garage doors really
that separated us from the crowd of inmates in the dining hall. We were
told that the doors would hold for about three seconds in case of a riot.
"You don't think we'd leave them up with this going on do you?"
"I've just never seen them down in the daytime," Jeffrey answered.
He stood up straighter.
We passed the cooks to get to the elevator; Fletcher grabbed my arm.
"Where are you going with that inmate?" he yelled.
''Locking him in the service elevator--Willis' orders.''
Fletcher hesitated, knowing he had the authority to command me
to do otherwise. "Hurry it up!" he finally said.
We went through the escape door to get to the elevator. I took off
my key ring and unlocked the elevator door. Jeffrey took a step.
"Will I be safe in here?" he asked.
I pondered the merit of lying. "It's a death trap," I answered.
Jeffrey staggered back. "How?"
''The screens,'' I said pointing to the heavy-duty screen roof and walls
in the elevator. '' If someone wants to kill you, all they have to do is throw
flammable liquid through the screens. You die of smoke inhalation if you
''They'd never think of that.''
''That's what those three blacks thought last week,'' I said. (They were
inmates his lovers had burned in their cells.) Then I nodded toward the
fifty-five gallon drum of oil that sat in the far corner of the room.
Jeffrey stared at his feet. He tensed as if to spring, then held his
stomach as if he'd vomit again as he stepped into the elevator.
I locked the door and pushed the down button.
"Will I be able to get into the basement?"he yelled as the elevator
''The basement door is locked,'' I answered. The elevator door was
made of thick wood, but it had a two-square-foot section of heavy screen
for a window. I watched him descend.
"Can I break it down?"
I gauged the thinness of his arms, the roundness of his shoulders.
"Probably not," I answered. Probably not a chance in hell. "If you can
get the door open or tear down the screens and get into the office, hide
in the compressor rooms, in a corner. Don't go into the service tunnels.
They'll crawl in there to hide from each other-the tunnels are deadly."
I remembered tales of inmates dying in the tunnels. One little body-builder
named Johnson told a group of inmates a story about crawling into a tunnel
to hide during a riot and meeting a man in the darkness. The man stabbed
him in the neck with a screwdriver and they fought in the cramped tunnel.
After strangling his attacker, Johnson found that it had been an old
cell-mate-one of his best friends. He warned, " If you 're ever in a riot,
put your back against the wall and kill anyone who gets near you. I don't
care if he's your best friend. I don't care if he's smiling. I don't care if
he's weaponless. Kill him." I hoped Jeffrey would remember those stories.
''Thank you, Animal,'' he said solemnly. As the elevator reached the
bottom, I flipped off its lights.
The volume of the roaring had evened out again; the white plastic
walls shimmered in unison with the voices.
Since I was near the loading door, I considered opening it and keeping
it ajar to speed our exit if the inmates broke. But it was against prison
policy to have both the loading door and the escape door open at the same
time, so I left it closed. Instead I wandered back to the escape door and
stood in the doorway, watching the cooks. Most of them stood just a few
feet in front of me, huddled together, smoking cigarettes and speaking
in whispers. I didn't join them. Mueller, the little German, wanted to start
breading the pork chops for dinner. Walrus said he'd help and they ran
into the vegetable cooler to get some eggs for breading. The other cooks
ignored them and huddled together in their white uniforms with their
white faces. They all thought they were being some kind of heroes; they
wanted to be there when the walls came crashing in so they could tell their
grandchildren about it. I just wanted to go home.
"Hey, Animal, you still up there? " Jeffrey yelled from the elevator.
I didn't answer.
"Animal, you up there? " His voice came louder. I didn't want to talk
to him, figuring he'd be dead in a while anyway.
"Animal, answer me! " he screamed. I turned, wandered around the
corner, back to the elevator shaft.
"Yeah, I'm still here," I yelled through the screen.
''Oh," he paused, not sure what to say. "Is it really true?--what you
said about swearing off your wife for a week."
"No,'' I chuckled. "I was just teasing you, man." I liked that word,
man. It sounded so colloquial.
"Oh. I really believe it, you know--that it takes a man to really love
another man. Women can never really relate. They're all either prudes or
bitches,' ' he stumbled over the words, trying to sound casual.
''Women aren't easy to understand,' ' I conceded.
''Yeah, I know what you mean.''
I cocked my head and listened to the rhythmic chanting. The voices
were blending into one voice; the speed of the chanting was picking up.
"Hey, Animal, what's Sandy like?"
That he knew my wife's name threw me. I didn't know where he got
his information, but it wouldn't have surprised me if he knew I had a cat
"Hey, Animal. Do you still believe in all that about God?"
Jeffrey had asked me about my religion three years earlier when I first
started working in the prison. I hadn't been to church more than three
or four times since then. The last time I went we sang a song which said
"Jesus bid the prison doors unfold.'' It gave me a sick feeling.
''Yeah, I guess I still believe it.''
"I don't," he said. "My parents tried to cram it down my throat for
years. I don't believe it. How can you believe in God?"
"I don't know, sometimes you just feel it. The way you can feel another
person in the room when it's dark and quiet."
"You think you can feel when another person is in a room? "
''Sure,'' I said. He'd be thinking I was crazy.
"If you didn't know I was in the elevator, do you think you could
feel me here?' '
"Of course, I always know when someone's in the basement."
Jeffrey seemed to consider it for a long time. I could picture him
counting the times I'd caught inmates in the restricted area of the basement.
Or the time I got a sense of urgency on the way to work and drove eighty
miles-per-hour all the way from Pleasant Grove. When I got to work, I
ran down to the basement and found Salinas nearly beaten to death.
Sometimes inmates went to the basement to take drugs or fight. More often,
just one person would go there to huddle up on some flour sacks, rock
in the darkness, and try to achieve the illusion of being alone, unwatched.
I knew how they felt. Sometimes I wanted to huddle in that darkness too.
There were rumors that I had microphones or alarms in the basement so
I'd know if anyone was there. He knew I was telling the truth.
''Can you feel me here now?"
Closing my eyes, I sensed him as a dark spot at the edge of my
"Aw, you just smell me or something.''
I wondered. I couldn't let a butterfly pass without listening for its
wings. I'd stand in the forest and try to unravel the descent of one leaf
among a thousand falling leaves. I would hone every sense, then drag them
across the cold stone floors of the prison.
Closing my eyes I tried to separate Jeffrey's smell from the other scents
in the room. A gentle draft rose from the hot basement. I took a long
whiff, discerned the smells of mold and dust, Jeffrey's vomit and body
oils, the familiar smell of the prison-laundered clothing, flour, the musk
of mice, and beyond them, ... yeast? And apples? Applejack?
"Aw," I muttered. "Someone's making brew in the basement again."
Jeffrey started chuckling.
"Who is it? Wait. It's Vigil, isn't it?"
Jeffrey snorted and pounded on the elevator door.
"I knew it! I saw that little wetback in here yesterday. And he had
"We told him not to!" Jeffrey laughed. "We said you'd catch him.
He just said, 'All I want is a leetle drink for Chreestmas.'"
I heard someone walk up behind me. I glanced at the white of a cook's
uniform, then Schaeffer whispered in my ear, "Get your coat and stuff.
We're supposed to get ready to go. We just got a call from Control One:
riot on A-block, inmates trashing the place, multiple fires." I nodded.
"What'd ya say, Animal?" Jeffrey yelled.
"Yeah, he'll drink water on A-block for Christmas. Hey, look, I gotta
"Hah! You put that together pretty good, Animal. You know, you
scare folks sometimes.'' He was just trying to delay me.
"Yeah, I gotta go.'' I liked scaring folks--the right kind of folks.
"Hey, Animal. Do you sense God in prison?" he asked too loud.
''Well, he's supposed to be everywhere, but I haven't felt him here.''
"Me neither," Jeffrey said.
"But he's supposed to be here-even in prison."
There was silence.
"Maybe he's over in Minimum Security," he said. "They get
everything over there.''
His fishwife accent made me laugh. It was almost like the old Jeffrey
was back. Listening to the shouting and cries in the dining hall, I looked
out the escape door into the kitchen. The cooks were still standing around,
enjoying their adrenaline rushes too much to think about leaving. I stepped
back next to the elevator.
"Hey, listen," I said quickly. "Why don't you try stepping off the
elevator and standing on the sill by the door. I'll try bringing the elevator
up enough so you can crawl underneath it to hide.''
"Get under the floor of the cage?''
"Yeah, if you're skinny enough to let the elevator slip by you."
"What if it squishes me?"
''It won't squish you. There's an automatic cutoff if anything touches
the face-plate by the door.
"No. I mean what if I get squished under the elevator cage?"
"It doesn't go down that far. There's about a three-foot clearance space
there that the repairmen use." I suspected that inmates sometimes hid
under the elevator when I did my security checks.
"Okay, give it a try," Jeffrey yelled.
I hit the up button. The elevator rose for a moment, then stopped.
''Give it another try,'' Jeffrey said. ''I hit the face-plate by accident.''
I pushed the button again. The elevator rose a bit more and stopped.
I jiggled the switch a few times till the elevator wouldn't give anymore.
"How are we doing?" I asked.
Pants and grunts came from the shaft. Finally he answered, "My thighs
are wedged in tight. I can't even get my arms under it."
I could go down and disconnect the fuse that operated the safety
features of the elevator-but that would require about two-and-a-half
minutes. It would take another minute to get Jeffrey under the elevator.
Judging by the din coming form the culinary, it didn't sound like there'd
The sound of approaching footsteps made me turn. Franklin was
watching me with his rabbit eyes, afraid to disrupt my conversation.
''Willis wants you,'' he said.
''Okay.'' I expected Franklin to leave, but he stood there shaking and
licking his lips.
"Hey, Jeffrey," I called, "I've got to go for a minute. If l don't make
it back in time to do anything else, just remember to keep close to the
inside wall, huddled down, so no one can see you from up here.'' And
dodge the oil when it comes, I thought.
''Yeah, yeah. I'll do that,'' he answered. ''Hey, Animal. Know what?
When I got up this morning, getting a haircut was the most important
thing on my mind,'' he giggled.
I walked out remembering the bald men in New Mexico.
Willis was standing by the office door, telephone in hand. I waited
for him to speak.
"Where you been?" he asked.
"Locking Jeffrey Owen in the elevator. Need me for something?"
"No, I was just wondering where in the hell you were . We need to
be ready to evacuate. I want you to stand by the escape door and hold
it open till they start trying to break in. If the inmates try to force entry
through the service doors, I want the escape door closed in no less than
three seconds. Understood?"
''Three seconds,'' I nodded.
I took my post and waited. The chanting continued. There were no
more dissuasive shouts, just the steady throb of ''Burn it down . Burn it
down. Burn it down." Standing at the door, listening--that's when I knew
it would really happen. The cooks were still gathered in their circle, except
for Mueller and Walrus, who were cracking eggs four at a time. I noticed
that the motion of their bodies was in rhythm with the chanting: grab
some eggs; burn it down. Crack some eggs; burn it down. Dump the shells;
burn it down. One of the eggs had fallen to the floor. I stared at the perfect
top half-shell, with the yolk spilling yellow beneath it. Once there was this
scullery worker, a weasle named Gray. He begged me for an egg, but I
didn't want to give it to him, thinking he'd throw it at somebody. He was
so persistent I gave it to him. He took the egg and sat at a table all
afternoon, delicately wrapping it in some rusty barbed wire that had fallen
from the fences, ignoring the cuts he got. When he finally got it wrapped
in a perfect little cage, he ran around the room showing it to people,
pointing to the egg resting among the barbs, and saying, "That's me!
That's me!" Then he went to his cell and hanged himself.
I turned my eyes from the egg and listened to the sounds of the chanting.
The cooks stood in their places, oblivious. They were childish idiots
playing Russian roulette, planning to dodge when they heard the click and
bang. I looked at Walrus. He'd probably die. Maybe Richardson would
too, from where he was standing. They were cooks-even my bosses were
cooks. I could understand their watching and waiting; they spent their lives
watching and waiting for pots to boil. I could understand their lack of
concern for the fairy in the elevator; they concerned themselves with the
serving of things to be eaten. In such moments of clarity, life seems a very
good joke. It made me smile.
But I am a guard, I told myself.
The pounding voices halted. The cooks turned and began to run
toward me. There was a whoosh of indrawn breath and one commanding
scream from the cafeteria.
Then rose the shout. The floor felt like a rolling wave under my feet
and I looked past the cooks running toward me. I could see the shapes
of heads denting the big, blue service doors as inmates rushed against them.
The little wooden doors on either side of the kitchen splintered under the
pressure of bodies. I watched the faces of the passing cooks: Fletcher's eyes
darted back and forth as he ran; Mueller's were glittering and dangerous;
Rabbit eyes and Walrus were both crying. I began to swing my door closed.
Inmate Kavika ran into the kitchen with a tide of sky-blue uniforms behind
him. He stopped, cocked his arm, and threw something at Willis, the last
in line, a few steps from my door. Willis was yelling, "Get out," waving
his pliers and looking for stray cooks. Kavika's homemade brass shurikin
grazed Willis' forehead and hit the wall behind him. Bottles and pipes
hit the wall and shards of glass spattered around us. Ceramic tiles began
falling from the roof, and the inmates all stopped and shielded their heads.
I thought the roof was caving in until I saw that the metal tracks for raising
and lowering the service doors were being ripped from the ceiling by the
pressure of bodies shoved against the doors. None of the inmates made
it halfway down the row of ovens before I swung my door shut.
It was only twenty feet to the exit. The cooks opened the back door
and an icy blast of air hit me; I double-locked the escape door while they
ran out. Willis waited in the doorway, sillouetted by cold sunlight. I watched him.
''Why are you standing there? Come on! '' he said. The sun on his
white uniform and his wide mouth reminded me of a frost-covered toad.
''Why are you looking at me like that? What are you doing!'' he yelled.
''Getting Owen out.'' Outside, the warning sirens started, permeated
by the belch of riot horns.
''Leave him! That's an order!" he shouted, pointing the pliers at me.
The action struck me as being very strange, as if he thought the pliers held
some power over me.
"Get out!" I yelled back.
I punched the up button, turned and waited. I knew Willis wouldn't
report me; or at least if he did, I didn't care. Someone began beating on
the escape door with something metal. There were yells to tear it down.
I've failed, I thought. The demons are at my door, and it is within
my power to save only one man. I smiled. The pounding on the heavy
escape door grew more insistent; and there was scraping, as if they were
tearing the walls down with crowbars. The door was supposed to hold for
five minutes-but then the bullet-proof glass around the control rooms
in New Mexico was supposed to hold for five minutes, and it had held
up for only twenty-four seconds. Willis slammed the back door shut and
took off running.
The elevator's trip up took sixty seconds. It seemed longer.
"Are you letting me out? Are you letting me out?'' Jeffrey kept saying.
He was jumping up and down and climbing the wire walls inside the cage
of the elevator.
In that moment I felt great peace. The hammering on the doors
became a distant rushing. I watched, unconcerned, as the door
dented like thin aluminum. I realized the door would be down within a
minute. It didn't seem to matter.
Someone with a pry bar beat on an old metal plate crookedly welded
to the escape door. He broke the plate at the weld, pushed the bar through,
and used it as a lever to pry the plate free. The plate peeled back like the
page of a book. A six-by-six inch hole opened at eye level. The hammering
slowed for a moment while an inmate's eye passed in front of the hole.
"Hey, there's a guard in there!" he yelled.
"Who is it?" several voices yelled above a background of screams.
A black face passed in front of the hole, was pushed aside. A third
"It's Animal," the face said.
''Animal?'' someone yelled. I recognized the voice of one of the inmate
cooks, Nathan Stoneman. ''Let me talk to him.''
Some black I didn't recognize said, ''Yeah, let the man talk to him;
let the man talk to him.''
Nathan's brown eyes appeared.
"Hey, Animal, buddy, what are you doing in there?" I nodded toward the
elevator. "I got Jeffrey Owen locked in the elevator. I'm taking him out."
"What's that?" several voices asked.
"He's taking Owen out," Nathan said.
"All right! All right!" the black man and several others said.
Nathan tapped nervously on the side of the door, the ring on his finger
sounded small and tinny against the sounds of the riot. Only one person
was still beating on the wall. "Hey, uh, Animal," Nathan said, "why don't
you, uh, open this door and take us out with you?"
I paused for a very long time, as if considering. 'I'd like to, Nathan.
I'd really like to. But if I open this door, you know that you and I could
never get it closed again.''
''Let me talk to him,'' someone yelled, and Nathan was shoved aside.
A mop handle with razorblades gouged into one end of it was clumsily
thrust through the hole. I stepped aside, watching it clatter to the floor.
There was a smack and a scuffle; Nathan reappeared at the hole.
"Hey, I'm sorry about that, man. I didn't see it coming," he said.
"That's okay,'' I said. "I did."
"How much longer is it going to take?"
''About twenty seconds,'' I answered, thinking, if you hurry you can
"Twenty seconds?" he paused. "You got it man. We'll guard the
"We'll guard the door?" the black man asked.
"Yeah," Nathan said.
"You mean we will guard this door?"
"Yeah," Nathan answered.
"Damn right!" someone else chimed in.
"Far-out! We're guarding this door!" the black man said.
The pounding ceased. There were screams and sounds of glass breaking
in other places, but everything was quiet by the door. I knew they'd want
payback and considered. Finally I laid the basement keys on the floor.
''I'm leaving the basement keys here for you," I said. "When you
get done with them, put them downstairs in Vigil's hooch bucket.'' There
were whoops of laughter from behind the door and exclamations of ''All
right!" and "He's my man!"
''You guys stick together,'' I continued. ''In about six hours everyone
is going to get hungry. They'll all head here. So when you see them coming,
don't try to kill every gladiator carrying a stick. Just talk them into joining
your side. Bargain with the food."
The lights went out as the prison power supply was shut down.
''Just keep your heads and this whole thing can be over tomorrow." I stared
at Nathan a moment before opening the elevator.
Nathan nodded. The elevator was stuck a couple of feet from the top,
but now that the power was off, the in-built security systems were defeated;
I was able to unlock it without waiting for it to come the rest of the way up.
Jeffrey stepped out like a woman in high heels who is afraid of turning
an ankle. I stooped to pick up the spear that had been thrown at me.
We walked out the back door, pulling it closed behind us, and headed
slowly down the ice-covered loading ramp toward the fences. Cold sunlight
burned our eyes, but we floundered ahead; soon we'd grow blind to it,
and it wouldn't have power to harm us anymore. I warned Jeffrey to stay
close to me and to stop when he reached the first fence, knowing he'd
get shot if he tried to climb it. He might get shot anyway if the tower guards
were too nervous. I wondered if I'd be able to cut small bushes with my
spear. I suddenly decided that I was going to grow a garden with rose bushes
in it--and I would prune them with the spear. And I would pull the earwigs
and aphids from the leaves with my fingers and put them in quart jars
and release them in the woods. And if the thorns cut me, I'd bleed on
the ground, and my roses would be redder for having been watered with
blood. It was cold and I was shaking. I looked over my shoulder; every
window in the prison seemed to be shattered already; smoke was pouring
from the laundry and C-block; someone screamed, "My God, My God,
Save me!'' and a crackle of rifle-fire answered from tower one.
And there will be weeds in my garden, I thought. There will be plenty
of room for weeds. Tansy ragwort, thistle and dandelions. And when they
are in bloom, I'll walk around them so they don't get crushed. I was so
tired, I just wanted to get home and get to bed, to curl up in the darkness
for a long time.
Jeffrey was sobbing. "What are you smiling about?" he asked.
I hadn't realized I was smiling. Do I always smile at the wrong time?
''Maybe it's because I feel a great and peaceful presence, moving through
the basement," I said.
Jeffrey wiped his eyes with his shirt sleeve and glanced up. I pictured
my white teeth smiling and was suddenly very afraid they would crack and
fall out and get lost in the snow.