A short story by Thomas Elson
Gerald Xavier Kilmer placed his cell phone on the corner of his walnut desk, breathed in deeply, exhaled, looked down from his fourth story window, and saw for the second time that day what he had experienced more than thirty-five years earlier. Kilmer turned away, his eyes followed the long corridor connecting other executive offices, and then he turned back toward the window. When he looked down, it was gone.
Thirty-five years ago, he stood in front of an armed guard, the one rumored to have been the state’s hangman, as he paired the men together. The wind ricocheted from building to bus, then exploded in Kilmer’s face as he stood on the gravel driveway highlighted with small mounds of snow. Another guard shackled the prisoners. First, the individual waist chain, then wrists were secured at the waist with handcuffs. These followed by leg chains attached to each man’s ankles, then a single chain which bound two men’s ankles, one to the other.
“On the bus,” The guard said. Each word pronounced slowly with a pause in between. “On to the bus, ladies.” The former executioner’s voice was amplified by his face—scowling, defensive, angry at some ancient slight, eager to drive his anger into the first defenseless opportunity. Capital punishment by lethal injection had killed his status among the prison guards and relegated him to a bilious bus driver.
Kilmer was one of the prisoners transported that day from a county jail to the State Penitentiary shackled to a man he had never seen—probably someone from solitary. Chained one to the other, they hopped in unison toward the feeble transport bus with its sun-splotched dashboard, no circulating air, windows covered by welded W-beams, and two-degrees hotter than hell—even in early January. Kilmer and the other prisoners sat behind a heavy chain-link wall with their hands locked at their hips.
The arthritic bus gathered momentum, then stopped, creaked, coughed, and exhaled smoke that compounded the odor of unwashed prisoners, guards dripping with anxiety-sweat, and the mold from the bus seats.
The driver cranked the ignition again, shouted at no one—then to everyone:
“They ever service this POS?”
It was going to be a difficult sixty miles, made more difficult by the former hangman’s insistence on complaining about his every imagined slight. “This’ll be a joy,” Kilmer said to himself without smiling. He kept his own counsel in county, decided early to avoid groups, knew he had just enough of a sentence to satisfy a politically savvy district court judge.
The bus bounced over the gravel path, stopped at the main gate for a security check, and drove past the chain-link fence, soon to become the twenty-foot limestone walls of the State Penitentiary.
Sixty miles later, a singular view. The bus crested a small hill, continued down the ridge and toward the right—Lecompton State Penitentiary. The bus was silent. Even the driver stopped bitching. Each man silent. Their fears surfaced. Their intestinal fortitude strained to hide fear, bury helplessness.
From guardhouse, to towers, to stone walls seven feet thick and twenty feet high. Blank stares. Clenched teeth, tight jaws. Eyes darted, as if following a large predatory bird. As the bus edged closer, the noise rose. The men attempted to mask their dread with quick, explosive talk. The one-liners of fear.
Soon to be under the superficial control of the prison guards; in fact, they would be under the care, custody, and control of the rules and customs long established by other prisoners. Alpha prisoners who filled the authority vacuum, and organized to enforce the unique common law of the prison cells and yard. Within minutes, Kilmer’s perspective changed. Prison reality would descend later—locked down inside the cell house, where authority was transferred.
The guardhouse gates opened. Kilmer walked through. He saw drawn faces surrounding abandoned eyes. Men with limps he would soon learn they did not have when they entered prison. Parts missing—parts buried within the prison walls. Keep your eyes down, but stay alert. Don’t look, but observe everything. Kilmer and the others were unshackled on the rock-strewn lot. Sounds alternated between crunching and hammering.
“All right girls, y’all fresh meat now.” Without another sound, the driver’s body bounced up and forward, as if he were laughing as he uttered his default phrases: “Asses inside, ladies. You somebody else’s problem. Keep your legs crossed. And don’t drop the soap.” The other guards ignored him.
The Lecompton State Penitentiary. Officially renamed the Lecompton Correctional Facility. A rose. To Kilmer it was a name change representing only a name change. Built by prison labor in the 1860s, the first cell house completed by 1867, and in continuous operation except for the 1896 smallpox shutdown. The central 11-acre maximum-security prison was surrounded by a 46-acre medium security unit and a separate 85-acre minimum-security area. Towers staffed by guards with rifles, each unit separated by limestone walls and concertina wire. Over 2,480 inmates and a folklore of serial killers that ranged from Richard Hickock and Perry Smith to Lowell Lee Andrews and the BTK serial killer.
Kilmer walked past old men with hunched backs whose resentful eyes followed him. His mouth tightened like a drawstring—then grimaced. He held his head down just enough to seem disinterested, but alert enough to see danger with eye contact made too fast for anyone to take offense.
He shuddered. Scenes flashed as if in a movie—images of young men, heads raised, eyes alert—temporarily above the rules; older men, hope absent, heads and eyes lowered and replete with resentment and distrust; the oldest men, bent and limp like effigies—always crouched as if expecting another body blow. The long-timer’s bravado. The short-timer’s briskness as if passing through on an assignment. An assignment unwanted as hell, but an assignment nonetheless. Consigned to a place for those without a place, surrounded by rage, with just enough hope to inhibit further hope.
During processing, guards separated the new arrivals. Some were assigned to Cellblock D—a semi-isolation building inside the walls; others to Cellblock E—a circle of World War II Quonset huts located fifty yards outside the walls, exclusively for child abusers. The child abusers had remained inside the walls just long enough to scare the living hell out of them. The repeat offenders were assigned to Cellblock A, the notorious limestone fortress—four men into cells designed for two. First-timers, including Kilmer, were sent to Cellblock C for further observation with a more gradual integration into the general population.
As soon as Kilmer entered Cellblock C, a muscular man walked by, looked at Kilmer—whiter than Queen Elizabeth—and then laughed. The man called out to the prisoners seated at a nearby table, then to everyone, “Hey, look; a white guy in Lecompton. They’re ain’t no hope for us now.” He slapped his right thigh and walked on.
After Kilmer returned from the Mess Hall, he sat on the top bunk hoping to remain separated from the others. On the right side of his bunk, a shadow moved, then he heard a voice—“Hi. I’m Seán Tyler.”
On the same side of the bunk, another prisoner walked up, and smiled. “Hickock.” Waited a moment. “James Hickock. Not the other one,” said the tall, thin, crevassed man, referring to Richard Hickock from the 1959 Clutter family murder. He smiled as he talked.
Kilmer leaned away. His voice rose a panicked octave. Words sprinted from his mouth: “I’m sentenced for a short time. I’m engaged. I teach law. And I’m straight.” He caught himself. Regretted his mistake. He had been determined not to reveal his background.
Both Tyler and Hickock smiled. Hickock’s face open and calm, he continued, “Not why I came over. Just wanted to make sure you had what you need. Do you have a glass or cup for water?”
“Yes,” Kilmer said, determined not to become indebted to anyone.
Hickock extended his hand. “Okay, then. I’m in for manslaughter, hit with the bitch.” He said, referring to the third strike law—third felony, you’re in for life. “So, I’m not going anywhere. If you need anything, let me know.”
Kilmer returned Hickock’s gesture with a handshake and a simulated nod of appreciation. As soon as Hickock turned away, Kilmer exhaled. His back was tight, and his neck began its chronic ache.
Tyler, who had not moved during the exchange, waited for Hickock to leave, then said, “I’m in for first-degree murder. Twenty-five to life. Circumstantial evidence. I’m appealing. Since you teach law, could you explain my trial transcripts to me?” He stepped forward, then said, quickly, “What’re you in for?”
Kilmer answered, “I was accused of allowing planes filled with marijuana and cocaine to land on my parents’ farm. Just let ‘em land, let ‘em unload, let ‘em drive off, and not call the sheriff, and I got $2,500 bucks a visit—two visits per week for three years.” Kilmer looked at Tyler as if assessing whether to continue. “Told I’d get a misdemeanor. Judge gave me just enough of a felony sentence to justify being sent here. My best guess is I’ll be here three-to-four months.”
Kilmer and Tyler were assigned jobs with the Lecompton Quartermaster. Each day they stacked the cleaned laundry, then sorted the dirty laundry underneath the outside stairway of the cellblock. They worked together for three days before Kilmer uttered a complete sentence when he asked his first question, “Did you have any Christmas in county?”
“Not even music. Not a sound. Nothing special. Same damn food. Same everything.” Tyler said, as he tossed dirty socks into the stained canvass laundry bin.
At 6 a.m. the next day Kilmer woke with a momentary feeling of freedom, then quickly slid back into reality. Daily decisions. Make ‘em quick. Know where you are. Know how to act. Know the routine. Don’t screw up, don’t look up, and don’t bend over. No favors accepted. No debts incurred.
At 7 a.m., after a guard opened the door, the men were led over to the Mess Hall. As Kilmer walked down the metal steps onto the cement, he heard the wind slam the door against the guardrail. Out into a world of browns and grays lacquered with splotches of industrial green. The color combination of depression and despair usually seen in hospital basements.
A large auditorium with a raised stage at one end doubled as the Mess Hall. Men lined up against the wall near a small, waist-high food service opening. Knives were withheld, even though fork tines served as a respectable substitute. Single tables bolted to the floor—six prisoners to a table. No long rows as in movies. Too difficult to patrol. The Mess Hall divided by a railing that in practice color-coded the prisoners.
“The food’s the same,” Kilmer said. “Brown and white. No matter what they call it, it’s always brown and white.” Kilmer remembered a county prisoner warning about the bread. Don’t eat the bread. The cook fucks the bread. Kilmer grew sarcastic. “Well, at least, nothing bad could happen here.”
After several minutes, Kilmer said to Tyler, “Lucky for us.”
“Lucky for us. Not being sent to A-Block.”
“I’ll be there soon enough”, said Tyler. “You get a decent bunk assignment?”
“Yeah. Typical institutional crap. I’m six-three and have the bottom bunk. The guy on the top bunk is about five-four and sixty years old. Has to jump, hang, then swing to get on the top bunk.”
Tyler pointed to a squat man with a blaring voice. The kind of voice emitted by skinny children from large families whose parents have interests elsewhere. A blaring voice usually followed by a sad-eyed parent saying, “I said no. You can’t.” Usually followed by more bellowing, followed by a louder adult voice, followed by a raised hand and a slap, or with the parent bending over and handing the child the sought-after candy.
“There’s Jerry. I don’t know exactly what he’s in for. He just spends time talking about Russell the One-Eyed Muscle, up the Muddy River, and how when you get out of prison, your soldier can stand at attention, but you can’t make him spit too good.”
Tyler glanced at the peeled, gray floors, and continued: “Jerry also said he was a comedy writer for John Belushi. I doubt it, but he sure can manipulate the system.” He went on to explain how Jerry obtained glasses, then contact lenses through the prison systems, and then how he got his teeth filled and capped.
“The white guy over there,” he continued, motioning toward a stocky, hunched, middle-aged prisoner with a puffy face that served as a roadmap for the results of running a con. “That fellow used to run a check-writing scam on merchants. He’d come into a town, get a bank account, order printed checks, come back after he got the printed checks, buy things like power lawnmowers and refrigerators in the morning, and cancel the purchase in the afternoon, get cash for the returned goods, and leave the merchants with worthless checks. He was caught when one of his meth-whores started talking inside a store. I think they now require a ten-day wait.”
Kilmer stopped eating and said, “You know, just to say it, I’d give some thought to avoiding those kinds of folks.” He caught himself and refocused, “I made a decision in county to stay away from those types.” He looked at Tyler, who was scanning the Mess Hall, and added, “But I’ve got months, not years.”
“Decades,” said Tyler. “I have decades.”
Kilmer said nothing.
As Tyler was leaving the Mess Hall, a guard standing by the raised stage pulled him over.
The guard responded, “I’m pattin’ you down. You carryin’ food? Spread your arms and legs.”
While the guard bent over to frisk him—legs first, then hips—Tyler, with a smooth one-arm motion, extracted the milk carton from his tattered jacket sleeve, and, with the movement of a surgeon, placed it on the stage. After the guard had searched his coat sleeves, he dismissed Tyler, and bent over to frisk the next prisoner. As if his first-degree murder conviction weren’t enough, Tyler cemented his reputation when he picked up the milk carton, placed it back in his coat sleeve, and walked away.
Outside the Mess Hall, dusk buried the prisoners while moving klieg lights exposed them when they leaned against a building. A distant amplified voice: “Step away from the walls… the walls… walls… walls.” The last word reverberated, like Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech. Gothic buildings, cement expanses, stone towers. Impenetrable and immovable. Steel and locks. Patrols and rifles. Their way or solitary. As if thrown into deep water at night, unable to swim or to come to the surface.
Days later, after a dinner of fatty beef (dry as July mashed potatoes), boiled green beans, white bread, and red Jell-O, the guards herded the prisoners back for the evening. Kilmer asked Tyler a central prison question: “How did you get caught?”
The rolled-in television emitted drone-like mantras of canned laugh tracks peppered with over-acting, laced with insults and gratuitous attempts at humor.
Tyler said, “When they came for me I had no place left to go, so I surrendered.”
Kilmer waited for a while, stood, then said, “I’ll be right back.”
When Kilmer returned, he carried Tyler’s trial transcripts, and dealt them on the bunk like a deck of cards. “Pick a card, any card,” Kilmer said with the right side of his mouth tilted upward.
Tyler’s eyes caught the yellow sheets extending from the white transcript pages.
“I’ve made a few notes,” said Kilmer, understating his review. He looked at Tyler, then said, “Who the hell did you piss off?”
Tyler looked up. His face began to form a scowl, before he saw Kilmer’s smile.
During their review, as the guards walked the perimeter outside the cage pretending to maintain a semblance of order, Kilmer outlined his thoughts.
“To start off, certain things didn’t happen in your trial that should have.” He reached for the transcript’s first yellow sheet.
“First, why wasn’t your attorney given a copy of the autopsy tape recording? And where are your copies of the autopsy photographs?”
“And,” Kilmer’s voice sounded like a repeating rifle, “was the person who did the autopsy a certified forensic pathologist, or some moonlighting elected coroner? Those bastards are rife in rural counties.” Kilmer took a breath, and outlined his basic thoughts about Tyler’s witnesses: none called—his attorney’s skill—no cross exam questions asked.
Tyler looked up, mouth slack, eyes clouded.
Kilmer continued, “I didn’t read any of the usual cross exam questions that anyone testifying as an expert is subjected to.” Kilmer glanced down and saw Tyler’s ashen face.
“Sorry to be so damn direct. Let’s just get through this. No need to answer any of my questions,” said Kilmer as he reached for the next yellow sheet.
A few days later, Tyler returned Kilmer’s favor when a tall man with a strained face came within twelve inches of Kilmer and said, “You look like the kind of man that has a Pilipino wife.” A threatening statement given the environment.
Tyler, known as a high-status prisoner with his twenty-five-to-life sentence for first-degree murder, stepped between the two men. “No, no, he has a very nice family; just like mine,” he said. The man backed away.
Kilmer, grateful as hell, knew that Tyler had never seen his family, since Tyler never had visitors.
Then, without notice, a loud voice: “Who? Who the hell? Why?” An echoing voice—a roar lowered to a rising chant. They saw a column of a man holding a wrinkled, brown paper sack, his right shoulder and the right side of his head pressed against the wall as he walked.
Another prisoner dressed in a t-shirt and headband walked up to the large man and said, “Stop it. Stop asking those questions, or you’ll end up in the psych ward.” He pulled the man’s head down and whispered something. The man became silent.
Tyler looked at the two men. “What’s that about?” he asked.
“He keeps walking like that and asking, ‘Why?’ Then mumbles. His voice gets louder and deeper until his protector over there shuts him up. The guards steer clear.”
The next day, three guards came for the man who held his life in a paper sack. As they led him down the corridor, Kilmer heard the man repeat, “Why?” Then he disappeared.
Kilmer fixated on the man. “They’ll bury him in solitary. Christ. He’ll never see sunlight again. Die of neglect in that isolation hole.”
The blare from the guard hit Kilmer’s ears:. “Get off. Move away. You can’t sit there. You, Kilmer, take a broom and sweep.” He pointed directly at Kilmer.
On Sunday morning, breakfast and church services were voluntary. Cellblock C inmates could sleep in. Kilmer and Tyler moved to a window by Kilmer’s bunk.
“How was it—the sweeping?” asked Tyler.
“Sweeping. Hell. After sweeping, he had me clean the toilets. Told me the warden was coming, and he wanted him to see me working. I guess it makes a good impression to have a white guy doing manual labor. Warden never did show up.”
Three months later, before breakfast, while Kilmer and Tyler were talking, a guard shouted, “Kilmer, pack your shit, and get. You’re leavin’ in thirty minutes. Sheriff’s comin’.”
Kilmer stood mute. Tyler said, “Give me your coat.” When Kilmer entered Lecompton, in the luck of the pull he had been handed a new, lined, denim winter coat. Tyler exchanged his thin jacket for Kilmer’s coat, and added, “They’ll never notice it when you leave.”
Kilmer grabbed Tyler’s shoulder. “I’m so scared,” he said.
Tyler, surprised, said, “You’ll be okay. Out in forty-eight hours. Guar-onteed.” Kilmer pulled him in for reassurance. “Thanks. You made this shit bearable.”
With that, they walked down the corridor. The deputy sheriff met Kilmer at the door. After the deputy said all the things required at a time like this, he handcuffed Kilmer and with his left hand guided him away.
Kilmer heard Tyler call his name. He turned his head sharply toward the long corridor. Seán Tyler was gone.
Thomas Elson lives in Northern California. His short stories, poetry, and flash fiction have been published in the United States, Ireland, Wales, England, India, and South Africa.