by David Hagerty
His counselor said the state had banned the box, but there it was on
the application, next to the question “Have you ever been convicted of a crime,”
putting him back in a box he’d just escaped. Leonard stared at the box without answering,
decided to skip it till the end, like some insoluble math problem on a school test.
That morning, he’d risen at dawn, dressed in jeans and a flannel
shirt from his P.O. Like inmates everywhere, he’d creased the legs and arms under
a mattress so they looked new. Then he’d buttoned the shirt at the cuffs and Adam’s
apple to hide his tattoos and slicked back his hair.
leaving home, he’d mugged himself in a mirror, practicing the smile they’d
taught him in his pre-release class. That same class had counseled him on how to hide the
gap in his history. Under education he’d listed the GED he earned inside, under work
experience his job in the prison library. Turned out, inside he could focus better than
back home, where his former friends entrapped him.
ventured out with them that night, to chase some girls or fight some guys, some escape
from the monotony of living. They’d crammed into a Cutlass and slow rolled through
downtown, past the bars and dance clubs that wouldn’t admit youngsters even with
fake IDs, despite the glinting signs luring them with booze and women. They’d sped
by the game shop and the skate park where they’d hung as kids, now empty and dark,
toward the abandoned building they’d claimed as their own, where they could smoke
and drink and shoot the shit without hassles from cops or parents.
day out, he’d ridden the public bus past those same spots, a big come-down from cruising,
what with the diesel fumes and rough ride. Only in daylight, after four years lost, they
looked more threatening than tempting. Along the way, he’d seen the Help Wanted sign
in the grocery.
It was just a warehouse job, stocking shelves
after hours, and his jacket contained no theft or drugs, nothing to stop him from applying.
Had to be the institutional feel of the place—a big echoing space, the only lights
from fluorescents buzzing overhead, the smell of disinfectant covering rot—that set
him on edge.
In his get-out-of-jail-fast class, the counselors
made him practice a “redemption speech,” a thirty-second patter of what he’d
done and how he’d changed. “If you robbed someone, say you’re looking
for gainful employment. If you took drugs, say you’re living clean and sober.”
The ones who’d caught more serious cases—rapes and killings—they advised
not to list anything, to write “will discuss in an interview.” Most guys goofed,
talked about profiling in public even as they plotted in private, but Leonard wanted a
They’d practiced in pairs, “being
accountable.” He’d squared off with this brother from the BGF, who’d
mugged him like he was a judge at sentencing, trying to throw Leonard off his game. The
big, concrete room had resonated with voices, blurring the dialogue into an echoing discord—a
word he learned for his GED. Probably his partner couldn’t even hear what he said,
but still Leonard invented a crime—a liquor store hold up that made him seem dangerous
and glamorous—and told himself he’d hone his patter alone in his cell. Only
back in his box, he’d put off the ritual, told himself he’d know what to say
when the time came.
He shouldn’t’ve had
to talk about it at all. According to the counselors, jobs couldn’t ask about his
crimes, only his good time. Ban the box, they called it. Except some companies ran background
checks, the counselors said, to catch people out in lies. If they caught you lying, even
on illegal questions, they could fire you, no matter how good a job you did. Then again,
why come clean if they’d never give you the job to begin with? So he’d filled
in all the other lines with neat type and left that one blank, hoping no one would notice.
At least it wasn’t a lie.
Now as he stared down the
manager inside the tight, square, stuffy office, no bigger than his own box in prison,
Leonard felt the itch on his scalp that came before he started to sweat. Why did he get
that same caged sensation as his first night in lock up?
He’d expected to fill out the forms, get a call the next week, time to prep. Instead,
he’d stood by idle and awkward while the manager looked over his data, then asked
him to step in back.
During school, stepping in back meant a
beating. Whether for showing up late or letting his shirt tail hang loose, the brothers
at the Catholic secondary didn’t care. They kept a jar of wood rulers on their desktop
for delinquents. They’d say “open your palms” then watch his face to
see how much it hurt. Other guys debated whether to cry out for mercy or ignore the pain,
but to Leonard’s experience, it didn’t matter what you did, the punishment
lasted just as long.
The store manager, a pale little man with
a wide collar and a dark suit, reminded him of the priests, with his short-cut hair and
dark-framed glasses. He stared with that same stern judgement and that same insistence
on honesty. Like anybody ever told the truth to clout.
he got caught, the cops asked Leonard why he did it. He knew they planned to trick him
into confessing, so he acted ignorant, even though they’d hooked him up at the scene,
along with his “conspirators,” as they termed them. He’d seen his former
friends in the bullpen as they perp walked him past, another scare tactic, like the tape
recorder on the table—there to convict him with his own words. “First one to
talk gets to walk,” said one cop, with a musky scent of sweat and blood left from
chasing him down an alley.
Leonard held out, but his friends hadn’t.
In court, the judge called him “incorrigible.” He dismissed the teachers
and coaches who spoke for Leonard, said he loved animals and art, typing him a good kid
following the wrong crowd. Even as a juvenile, Leonard got the max, four years in the big
boy box, with the other involuntaries. Judge said to “search himself”
for some decency not in evidence at the trial.
in court, for the job he’d listed his counselor and his parole officer as references,
labeled them his mentor and supervisor, hoped no one would check. But this middle-aged
square asked how he knew them, how long he’d worked for them, doing what? Said he’d
never heard of a job typing dots on paper, wondered if it paid.
Leonard answered honestly,
said he’d translated books to Braille,
but it wasn’t about the pay. Which was true. The state paid slave wages, 14 cents
an hour, said the inmates were “repaying their debt,” though he’d never
asked for a loan. If he owed anyone, hadn’t he repaid them already? What were four
years of his life worth?
One guard told him, “This is not rehabilitation.
This is incapacitation. Keep you off the streets till the piss and the pride subside.”
After a few months, most guys chose to program, but many had committed to doing life, one
stint at a time. He’d met some O.G.s on the yard, not just old guys but original
gangsters, who’d filled their resume with convictions.
wasn’t one of them. One bit in the box was enough.
seated there, before this authority, this citizen, this paycheck, he felt as out of place
as a snitch in a holding cell. After four years of being boxed, he couldn’t conform
to a square any more, no matter how he hid his hair and tats. Inside, he’d dreamt
of going straight. On the outs, he couldn’t summon the vision. Just as many rules
for the free as the confined.
Like most convicts, Leonard
started at The Arena, the infamous prison that the uninitiated called San Quentin. It acted
as the “reception” for new men—like they were college freshman learning
life on campus. By accident, he’d apprenticed himself to an old con he met on the
yard while walking laps. The two kept a similar pace, despite the old man’s limp,
and one day, after a week of circling each other, he’d started talking.
“You keep yourself to yourself,” the O.G. had said to Leonard.
After being betrayed by his
associates, Leonard distrusted any man, especially an old, battered convict who smelled
of menthol and damp wool, so he kept quiet, listening to the call of seabirds and sniffing
the saltwater along the bay.
“Lotta guys here join the gangs,
thinking it’ll protect them,” the old man continued. “Alls it does is draw them
into the politics.” Without looking, he nodded to the weight pile. “They teach
you to hate everyone who’s not them so you do they bidding.”
said nothing, but on their next lap, he let his eyes slow roll past the piles of iron,
where a herd of skinheads flexed and profiled.
away from phones, fags and cards,” the O.G. said. “That’s how they hook
Leonard nodded to show that he’d
heard but wouldn’t commit his thoughts to words.
That night, he’d recalled
the old man’s advice while his cellmate snored and farted below him. What trouble
he’d seen inside had erupted without warning or explanation—men squaring off
with whatever weapons they could make from spoons, handles, and toothbrushes—stabbing
at each other as though they were dancers in a music video.
next day, he’d kept pace with the old man again. “What else?” he’d
“Stay poor,” said his mentor.
“The less you make, the less they take.”
“Whoever. Men will lie, cheat, and die for a cup of noodles.”
In his cell, Leonard had a dozen ramen packs, gifts from his family.
He paid them to his cellie for two tattoos: of a panther, to remind him of predators, plus
five dots arranged in a square on his neck, to remind him of his time. When the old man
saw, he shook his head. He too carried blurry blue-black stains on his arm, but they looked
more like bruises. “Don’t mark yourself for life as a convict,” he’d
Their lessons continued for another month
until Leonard shipped off to a level II in the desert, where most days measured too hot
for yard time. So Leonard had taken the old man’s advice, earned his GED, then taken
a job in the library typing Braille books. Running his fingers over those rough dots, composed
of 2x3 grids, he’d imagined the blind kids who’d learn from his work. But it
was the life lessons from the yard that stuck with him.
in particular regurgitated. “Never admit what you done,” the O.G. had said.
“Not inside nor on the outs. The teachers tell you it’ll set you free, but
they not understanding: if you keep confessing, they keep punishing.”
Now, as the manager eyeballed his application, then paused at the bottom,
Leonard wished that he’d listened. “You left one line blank,” he said
and stared. “Tell me about that....”
Leonard sat perfectly still, as
he’d been taught: don’t squirm or look away. He started to say, “You know how
it is,” then checked himself. Nobody bought jailhouse blather. During class, the
counselors made it sound easy. Now, sitting there, the pitch felt like a bait and switch.
“Back when I was a youngster, I did something shameful,”
Leonard said, and stopped.
The square nodded for him to continue.
“I went out with some associates, drinking and smoking....”
He paused to check the other man’s reaction, but he kept himself to himself, betraying
nothing, like a smart inmate. “...and I brawled with this guy we met.”
The manager nodded as though he understood, knew what was coming.
“Anyways,” Leonard said, “I had
to fight him. I...” He paused at the ticking of a clock, the rumble of the intercom.
The office felt more stifling than ever, without sun or breeze, an airless box. “On
accident, I... hurt him.”
Leonard paused, satisfied that
he’d said enough, admitted enough, but the square man just stared. “How was
Leonard ran his fingers over the rough denim
along his thighs like he expected some invisible Braille message there to direct him. Without
thinking, he glanced toward the closed door and the store beyond. He could walk out, say
forget this lame man and his lame job, look for something where he didn’t have to
cop to his past. Still, the square showed no strain, as though he were considering this
convict. After four years of hiding, Leonard had tired of laying low.
“I beat him so bad he died.”
He left out the gruesome parts,
about gut punching this homeless man who’d been sleeping in their warehouse—punching
him until he fell and hit his head. About not knowing the danger signs, the convulsions
and eye rolling, about hitting him even as he died, then expecting him to jump back up
like some cartoon. At the time, he’d been high, angry, bored. The other guys dared
him. Called him soft, weak. Said he was afraid to be bad.
An excuse. If he’d learned nothing inside, it was not to excuse. No matter what his
former friends said, he carried the case.
cops arrived, Leonard saw how his thinking got perverted, could feel the shame of it, even
before he got to the police station, before he heard his parents and teachers in court,
trying to defend him. That more than anything stuck with him: how anguished they’d
looked, how fearful of what he’d become. At his sentencing, Leonard couldn’t
put it into words, fell back on easy outs, “I made a mistake...” “I wasn’t
thinking straight...” “I let myself down...” excuses his public pretender
wrote for him. Now he wanted truer words, words of his own.
lost myself,” he said.
The manager nodded once then
looked for something in that tiny office to distract him. Already Leonard felt sure he
wouldn’t get the job. Still, the tension drained from him like water off a man resurfacing.
Hagerty is the author of the Duncan Cochrane
mystery series, which chronicles crime and dirty politics in Chicago during his childhood.
Real events inspired all four novels, including the murder of a politician’s daughter
six weeks before election day (They Tell Me You Are Wicked), a series of sniper killings
in the city’s most notorious housing project (They Tell Me You Are Crooked),
the Tylenol poisonings (They Tell Me You Are Brutal), and the false convictions
of ten men on Illinois’ death row (They
Tell Me You Are Cunning). Like all his books, David is inspired
by efforts to right criminal injustice.