My career in law enforcement started in the prison system working as a corrections officer in a maximum security facility. The aged institution was a series of old, weathered and worn brick buildings that were probably ten years past the demolition stage. Ironically, that description fit many of the prison’s residents—old, weathered, and long past their prime.
As a new employee, and someone who didn’t know what to expect, once I was permitted inside the endless fencing and razor wire, well, I was a bit apprehensive to say the least.
During our orientation period (the prison system is a revolving door of both inmates and employees—neither seem to want to stay for very long), we were told the prison housed many hard-core inmates, even brutal murderers who’d never again set foot in society.
It didn’t take long to discover how many of the prison inmates survive in such a harsh environment. To do so, many of them “obtain” things from the outside. However, getting their hands on contraband is not the easiest of tasks. Therefore, using tactics similar to those used by feral animals, they stalk their prey, focusing on weak-minded, soft-touch officers. Then, when the moment is right, they cull the timid from the herd before moving in for the kill.
The difference between this type of prisoner and a lion is that the lion hunts for food, while the desperate inmate hunts for favors, liquor, drugs, cellphones, women, and possibly freedom. His prey—new, unsuspecting prison guards who could be manipulated and conned into granting those wishes.
Thankfully, I’m not weak or meek, nor am I an easy mark, so I never once fell for any of their clever con games. However, there’s another type of prisoner that did seem to get to me at times—old-timers with sad stories who seemed to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. They could have been anybody’s grandfather, even mine. And such was the case of …
The Wheel: Page Two of My Spiral Notebooks
Skin, wrinkled like grooves etched in wet sand.
Working man’s hands.
Nails bitten to the quick.
“They tore down the mill,” I said.
“The one near my place?” he said.
“I used to gig frogs at the base of that old wheel.”
“Caught some nice ones there.”
I offered another nod.
“What’re they gonna do there?”
“Convenience store’s what I heard.”
A gaze into the distance.
Staring into his past.
A deep breath.
A tired voice,
Nearly a whisper.
“The wheel was turnin’ that night, you know.”
I’d heard the story a hundred times before.
“I heard the water running over it when I crossed the road.”
Trembling hand through white hair.
The other, clutching fence wire.
Knuckles, white and taut.
“She screamed, but I still heard the water pouring off the wheel.
And the metal squeakin’ and creakin’.
It was loud. So loud.”
His eyes meet mine.
“Still hear it, you know. Every night, in my head.”
“I know you do.”
I know this because I hear his screams.
The ones that wake him late at night.
“I went over to her trailer to see about all the racket.”
Hand gripping hand.
Wringing and twisting.
Beads of sweat spattered across his forehead.
“She was my little girl, you know.”
“I opened the door.”
Eyes growing wide.
He was there, again.
In his mind.
“He … He was sittin’ on top of her …”
“She was naked. Lips bleeding. Down there, too …”
Old eyes filled with water.
Spilling down his sun-leathered cheeks.
“I tried to pull him off.”
“Too big. Too strong.”
Anger crept in.
Teeth clenched tightly.
“I went back across the road to my house.”
Looking at, but through me.
Seeing it all again.
“To get my shotgun.
I didn’t want her to marry him. Never did like the guy.
A drunk and a bum.
Never worked a day in his life.
Beat her all the time.
Bruises and black eyes.
I seen ‘em.”
“Loaded three rounds of double-aught buckshot, I did.
Get off my little girl!
Mind your own business, old man, he says to me.”
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
“Well, that bastard’’ll never touch my precious angel again.
Went home to get gun.
A beat of silence passed.
“So they tore it down, huh?”
“A convenience store, huh?”
“I’ll always hear that water runnin’.
And the metal screechin’ and squealin’.”
Wiped away a final tear.
“I know you will.”
“I’d do it again tomorrow, you know.”
Announcement from speaker.
“Count time in five minutes.”
“All inmates report to their cells.”
Chatter of dozens.
Feet shuffling on concrete.
“I wish she’d found somebody like you.
Maybe we could’ve gone frog-giggin’ together, you and me.
Before they tore it down.
Crappie there are as big as your two hands held side-by-side.
They’s some good eat’n.”
Gnarled fingers through the wire.
Reaching for me,
For a simple touch.
Human to human.
Liver spotted hand.
“I’da liked that. I really would have.”
“Me, too …
* The Old Man and the Wheel is a true story that crosses my mind from time to time. Today is one of those times.