When the pandemic first hit and none of us could go anywhere I took the time to recount the stories I’d been trying to forget from my year in prison and I wrote them down before the memories eventually faded. I had written short stories before but I knew that prose is a whole different animal than song writing. I did my best with the stories I had. It wasn’t easy to rehash these times. For legal reasons I have to say that names have been changed and this should all be considered fiction, but well… ya know. I’ll be releasing these stories here every week or two for the next couple of months They are in no particular order but at the very least I hope they provide some context as to where the songs on my new album, Behind The Pine Curtain, grew out of. They aren’t edited and I’m sure there are commas missing and words misspelled but I hope you enjoy reading them. -JB, 5/23/22
The daily fights that break out here are usually just arguments over matters of little consequence. Things like which rom com to watch later during TV time tend to be the conflict of the day. That’s not to diminish the veracity or danger of such confrontations. On the contrary, during some of these are fights the loser ends up on the floor and the victor keeps going after him. Because let’s face it, you have to be somewhat disturbed to begin with to want to start swinging over which movie from two decades ago you want to see starring Patrick Dempsey or Drew Barrymore or whoever.
I can see some poor bastard now gasping his last words as he lays in a pool of his own blood, ‘I’m dying to see that movie!’
In summary, the tension in the jailhouse is eternal. Actual physical altercations are somewhat more infrequent.
Every once in a while though, we’ll get to see a real bloodbath, up close and personal and played out in real time. I’ve found it’s as necessary here as it is to the big wars being fought out in the world.
As we get back from breakfast, the cheap plastic chairs in the day room that were so casually pushed aside in a rush to get in the chow line have now become altars to be coveted in this unsanctimonious temple of ours. We have one hour of free time until most of us have to go to our TDCJ forty hour a week job that we’re so graciously paid with for in non- air conditioned housing, daily harassment and aforementioned pork roll. The chairs that still sport all four legs have long ago been claimed by the members of our population who have resided in this dorm the longest and these chairs have the marks and gang signs to prove it. Most of the other chairs are beat up beyond repair and it’s up to the most desperate mother fucker that doesn’t want to sit his sorry ass on the floor during free time to grab one.
Just as I sit down in a corner opposite Little John to strike up a game of checkers on the floor, I hear a scared, strained voice that has become all too familiar these last few mornings.
“That’s my fucking chair Bobby Hill! Fuck you man, you can’t do this!”
Roach is a thin, pale weakling of a man who during a previous incarceration had been unceremoniously gang raped by the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, right before they took off the the inked ‘white power’ ensign on his shoulder with a cheese grater smuggled from the kitchen, or so I had heard. When he first got to this unit, he was thought by most to be generally harmless, if not overtly obnoxious. But just in the past week there was a loud grumbling about a snitch in the dorm. Most of these warnings came from Rooster.
“Fuck your chair! You cock sucking piece of shit I know you snitched on my cousin in Orange County!”
As one could guess, he is not yelling about the Orange County in California with the housewives. Bobby Hill’s grumbled baritone and hostility get the attention of the whole dorm, who are all quick to get a first row look at whatever goings-on might break up the monotony of the day.
The blacks named him Bobby Hill after the boy from the cartoon King of the Hill, which we watch once a week on the local Fox affiliate after the ten o’clock news right before lights out. He’s a bit on the chunky side and is slow to pick up on the goings on around him. To dare say that he would not pass the simplest mental cognitive assessment is an understatement, but hey this is TDCJ and Bobby Hill is just one of many. It is also clear that Bobby has become one of many dim-witted sidekicks to Rooster, who is not so dim-witted and is not so quietly rumored to have connections to the high-ups in previously mentioned white supremacist organization.
“I don’t have to take this shit! I’ll go to the Major!”
Roach just said the worst thing he possibly could in front of everybody at that moment.
The yells start to rise from all demographics of our little community; the blacks, the affiliated whites, the Mexican gangs. Just a few minutes ago, bored and sedated after our early morning meal, we were all resigned to a day of drudgery mowing lawns in the field, folding whites in the laundry or heading to the chow hall to cook and steam over whatever slop is being served up for lunch. But we now have some entertainment and everyone smells blood even before it is spilled.
Bobby screams out incoherently.
Roach knows he has no ally to back him up. He makes a move for the only available exit to the open air bathroom. We all know this trick from every one-sided altercation we’ve seen here as it allows the pursued to flee to the larger bunk area where one can duck and run until the guards see what is happening and have to come in to break it up, at a leisurely pace, of course.
Bobby takes off after him to block the other exit from the bathroom and swings as Roach leaves the stall. Roach ducks under him unscathed and sprints to the far corner of the dorm where I just happen to be sitting cross-legged playing checkers. He looks at me for pity and I stare back with none. Just as we hear the buzzer sound and a guard walks in a good eighty feet away, Roach is knocked down to the floor by Bobby who now straddles him and lands four good punches to the face before two guards come in and mace the whole area rather than risk any personal injury to themselves.
They are practically on top of me now as the blood from Roach’s broken nose sprays all over the fresh new whites that I pay an extra two soups for to a friend in the laundry every week.
The metallic smell of another’s lifeblood shed in volume onto your own body by an act of violence can be a traumatic one. It goes through your nostrils and down the throat before settling deep in your stomach for however many days or weeks it decides.
When the guards finally pepper spray the corner to break up the fight, I can’t say I’m not relieved through the tears and vomit I soon have to exude. No one else could blame me either because they spray enough that almost all sixty-six others (including the guards who sprayed it) end up doing the same.
After the Major had written his report and Roach was taken to the infirmary and Bobby Hill was sent to solitary for three days as punishment, there wasn’t much left to say as it wasn’t much of a fight but at least it broke up the monotony of our shackled existence here.
Later that night, Little John sits across from me and rolls his eyes about the whole situation as if he’d seen it all before and would have to see it again a million times before he leaves this world in which he had been dealt a bum hand.
“Don’t even think about it kid, we’ll play that game of checkers tomorrow.”
As I took off my new imitation Reebok’s that I had been so proud of at the morning’s dawn, I tried to contemplate the days events and give them greater significance than just a bloodied face on my clothes and more time in lock-up for those involved. If there’s a moral here, this is the only sorry one I can find for now:
Do not discredit the fraught relations we have with our fellow human beings. If it weren’t for these blessed battles and resentments, we might have to face ourselves in a way that doesn’t resemble the script or storyline that we have built into what we think our lives are. These delusions of grandeur! Our idea of self fraught with fallacy! Rather, we might have to come to terms with what those whom we are both close and distant to will ACTUALLY say about us on the day we are laid into the ground. Through eyes not our own, the remembrance of our time here will be on the whole much more bland than we should have hoped for and the insipid nature we grovelled about through life in will be soon forgotten for the most part. This is a concept that is a hundred times more frightening than a petty quarrel with a friend or a night spent crying over a lover, dissension in the family ranks or even a political dogfight with some asshole on the internet. These blissful interpersonal wars feed our ids and egos and pepper our lives with purpose, thereby keeping us from retreating to some mountain to find a God that doesn’t exist, only to discover the gods that still reside in us are ready to do battle when the next bugle sounds. We could meditate these gods into oblivion but what would be the fun in that, for they are fierce and we are bored.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for spirituality and the dreaded self-discovery we so vainly equate it with in the West. But what does one do when they find the treasure we were promised exists in our darkest metaphysical holes by the local yoga master was actually fool’s gold? What we thought was the place where our deepest fears lay and our demons once danced was actually nothing but our own personal craving for significance. What if Rumi had discovered that where those sacred wounds bled there was no light waiting to get in?
I cross one more day off my calendar and try not to think about what got me here. It does about as much good as thinking about the fight between Roach and Bobby Hill.
She Was A Pistol That One
By Jonny Burke
I hope my pistol will forgive me. I dated her for long enough. We knew each other intimately and it’s a shame things had to pass in a way that could not be reconciled.
Glock 22. .40 caliber. Held 13 rounds. Well gripped but she never griped.
I was facing 10 years in prison. Her cooing and perceived shelter told me that a life (ended) with her would be the antidote. She told me it would all be okay. I miss her.
It was an unusually usual warm November night in central Texas. It all felt right with the whiskey and isolation and self-pity in the air. She tried her final seduction. I played along by pressing her barrel to my head.
I stared at the ground. The dogs were whimpering next to me, confused and concerned. They had heard this intruder invade their space and hurt their ears for years now when their friend felt cavalier and up for target practice. In this way they spoke and out loud exclaimed ‘Why must our friend treat this Jezebel in such a gilded manner?’
I rubbed my left hand across her barrel as I held her firmly with my right. I realized it was time. It was time to move on.
In the end the recoil was not hers but mine. I shot her bullets off at the moon and the stars and whatever else was up there that night until she spoke no more. And then I left her behind.
When I was released from prison a year and some change later, I didn’t say a word to her. I sold her off for $220 to that pawn shop off I-35.
I still have my shotguns and rifles and yes we get along as we always have, in a ‘you do your job, I do mine’ kind of way. Those are agreeable relationships and they're alright, i guess.
That pistol though. Whew, she was a pistol.
At the end of the day, you can be as pissed off as you want at the gods and the odds. It might even be justified but it won’t do you any good.
I have no other words of advice but these- get ya some good dogs.
Visions of Sophia
By Jonny Burke
She always comes in a dream. We are thirteen. The weeds are wet. We run through the cedar branches and our ankles scratch red with chigger bites. The sun has yet to rise.
While the world sleeps, we sit on the banks of the creek. Sinking into the black Southeast Texas mud, she places my hand on the inside of her thigh. She is all I’ve ever wanted at this moment and I feel it would be an act of sacrilege to ever want more. I wonder if this is love and a water moccasin swims towards the bank.
A light drizzle comes down and a faint light appears in the east. She gets up and takes off her nightgown. Wading into the water, she looks back and stares blankly at me. I hesitate.
There is thunder and lightning. The rain comes down in sheets and the once still creek slowly becomes a raging river. Where earlier I felt peace and serenity I now feel a rising fear inside of me. I try to call out over the storm but words do not come as she swims out towards the middle.
I can hear turbines start up. The river begins to whirlpool. I now see the blades of the machine cutting through the water.
I feel helpless. We are all helpless.
I cry out ‘Sophia, can you cross that river wide? Will you languish on the other side? Can you swim these tides of sin, new and violent? Where are you…where are you going?’
Where earlier I felt only the cedar and the creek and Sophia and her thigh, all of a sudden I am now in a hallway unable to find my class on the first day of high school. A vague authority figure chastises me.
Next, I am two songs into a show and my guitar strings break one after another as the crowd boos and heckles.
Then, I am walking down a city street and ghoulish voices call to me under manhole covers.
Finally, I am working construction on a high rise and a childhood bully pushes me off a skinny beam. Suddenly I’m falling, always falling.
I awake in prison at 3:17am. I am thirty-two. I’ve been here for 6 months, 2 weeks and 5 days. I’ve gotta say it’s not at all it was cracked up to be. I don’t mean that in the way you probably think I do. On the contrary, it is underwhelming and nowhere near as poignant or terrifying as it sounds.
Yes I am reminded daily at this hour that sleeping on the bottom bunk below me lays a convicted murderer. However, right now he rests in a slumber that at eighteen years in these kinds of places must seem a comfort. He is as polite and broken as a crippled sparrow. I doubt he has it in him to ever murder again. What a shame.
Yes, the guards do their best to torture us night and day. But their best just isn’t good enough. They are not the cruel tough specimen you might find in a typical jailhouse movie. They are insecure pudgy boys and girls. If they don’t get out of this rural West Texas town they all grew up in, many of them will end up behind these very walls in the not too distant future. Not that there is much difference in this part of the country between guard and prisoner. Convicted of some minor felonies or drug charges that the community indifferently suspected they had been committing all along, they will no doubt start the end of their lives as haphazardly as they had begun them. There is no need to fear the guards and we return their idle threats with stale insults. How drab and pathetic.
Every two weeks is commissary day and we line up hoping our loved ones have pitied us enough to put money on our books that we may enjoy the few simple pleasures we are allowed in here. Hardened criminals line up to buy ice cream and Ramen packets, their brutish impulses, which led them to rape and rob now replaced with apathy as they devour pints of Blue Bell and bowls of noodles. The whole thing is sickening.
I myself am no stranger to such treachery these days. Rather than spending my time writing verse and melody, bathing in the fountains of Dionysus and worshipping at the temple of Aphrodite as the good Lord intended, I make plans to eek out a meager living upon my release and one day hopefully rise back into the middle class my parents raised me in, if there is a middle class left by then. Ah the self-deception!
I practice breathing exercises to calm my nerves and quell my sexual appetite for the petite, brunette prison counselor who sees me once a month. Sometimes I give into my lustful thoughts about Ms. Brown and jerk off into a sock, only to regret it later because now I have one less clean sock to wear.
I spend the week looking forward to reading the Parade magazine insert in the Sunday paper, which I will not see until Thursday. I should kick my own ass for such vile transgressions!
I quickly move towards the bathroom to shit and shower before the 3:30am wake-up call summons the other sixty-seven unfortunate souls in this tank to do the same. There are no dividing stalls for either shitting or showering. A solitary ten minutes at this time of day is as much of a luxury as one could hope for in here. I almost feel free standing alone looking into a cracked mirror at someone I barely recognize. Well… I almost feel free. After eight minutes looking into this mirror, the whistle and the gaurds and their nightsticks come in banging on the walls and trash cans to distort the peaceful dreary morning, but it doesn’t bother me really.
When I saw Sophia and what awful fate awaited her in that dream, I saw God in all His wrath and glory. What’s a few malicious guards or murderous cellmates compared to that? The day is looking up, already.