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.
Before 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.
He’d 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.
His first 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 true escape.
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
After 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
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.
Just like 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
He wasn’t one of them. One bit
in the box was enough.
Yet 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. “That’s smart.”
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.”
Leonard 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.
“Stay away from phones, fags and
cards,” the O.G. said. “That’s how they hook you.”
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
The next day, he’d kept pace
with the old man again. “What else?” he’d said.
“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 said.
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.
One 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
“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
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
No. An excuse. If he’d learned
nothing inside, it was not to excuse. No matter what his former friends said,
he carried the case.
After the 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.
“I just lost myself,” he said.
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.
David 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.
Kevin D. Duncan
was born 1958 in Alton, Illinois where he still resides. He has degrees in Political Science,
Classics, and Art & Design. He has been freelancing illustration and cartoons for
over 25 years. He has done editorial cartoons and editorial illustration for
local and regional newspapers, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
His award-winning work has appeared in numerous small
press zines, e-zines, and he has illustrated a few books.