Wednesday, May 31st, 2023

Let’s Have Some Fun

Tangents Oct 1965

Let’s Have Some Fun


October 1965

Vol. 1 No. 1

Fiction by Francis Sandiford

Originally published in the October 1965 issue of Tangents

When the solid outer steel door of my solitary confinement cell was slammed shut on me I was really pissed off.

Thirty days for splitting a box of matches four ways. I’d served that much time in the hole for almost killing a con who wanted to rape me. Well, it wasn’t for splitting matches; it was for having that piece of razor blade I managed to score for for a sack of Bull Durham. They didn’t want convicts killing themselves or each other. Balls! If there was any killing of convicts done they wanted that pleasure. Could have killed a screw is what they had in mind. I was so mad I just stood in the dark with my hands around the bars of the inner door so tight it hurt. I was grateful for the dark because I was crying and in the thickness of it I screamed out my rage to disguise my fear of it.

Then I stopped suddenly with the scream a choke in my throat. There would be nobody in solitary confinement with me to see me cry. But there was somebody in my cell with me. I caught sight of him in the shaft of light that came in with me. It was so unusual an event that, though I saw him clearly in that flash of light that flooded the cell as I was being locked in, his presence didn’t register immediately. But now, with my scream hurting my throat, I recalled him vividly. He was a big man sitting on the floor with his hack against the wall, his head hanging down between his drawn up knees. He had looked at me with baleful eyes, blinking at the light. The load of sins must have been heavy that day, I told myself, for them to have had to double up in the hole. I turned toward him but of course it was too dark to see anything, but I smelled him, along with the toilet bucket with its inch or so of creosote at the bottom to disguise the human smell. I heard him too. He was breathing slowly and with a catch like a croupy baby. I stood there at the bars for some time taking all of him in. There was also the buzzing of a fly. But the man said nothing.

I crossed the cell and leaned against the wall opposite him. It was cold and wet and when the back of my one-piece “monkey suit” was soaked I let myself slide down it to sit with my legs sprawled out in front of me and listened to the cockroaches crawling around on the lid of the toilet bucket. I was feeling sorry for myself because I couldn’t even see my legs and something was crawling on them; but when I reached down to scratch where if itched I was so happy with my sense of direction that I laughed. But the man in with me said not a word.

“I am Paul Warren,” I said. “In for burglary. One to life. Got two years in and five more to go for another hearing.”

Nothing. I tried to ignore him but I couldn’t. He was breathing. When I got used to the dark I could see the faint outline of the heavily screened window high up on the wall and from under the door came a thin line of light.

There he sat, across from me, his knees drawn up, his arms hugging them and his head hanging between them. God, I wished he’d stop breathing. No, I said aloud. I couldn’t ever wish for that! He was a human just like me. But he said nothing.

• • •

“My officer said you were splitting matches four ways with a piece of razor blade,” the head captain had said to me as I stood before him waiting for his sentence.

When the captain looked up at me from pretending to be reading some papers before him on the desk — was it hatred I saw? Where did he get off? Wasn’t I the one to be hating? I was the one made to miss breakfast in order to be standing there waiting for a sentence that would starve me in a cold dark hole with nothing to sleep on but the stone floor; and he had the guts to sit across from me while I stood at attention, picking food out of the crevices of his teeth with his tongue, glaring at me!

“Don’t stand there gaping at me like that, you rotten bastard,” he shouted. Redfaced he was. “What have you got to say for yourself?”

What in the hell was he shouting for?

“Are you guilty or not?”

If I said not guilty he would have asked me with sarcasm if by that I meant that his officer was a liar. Guilty of loving you were the words to a song that came to my mind and so help me I laughed. This was too much for the captain of guards. He screamed. His spit flew into my face and I stood before him staring back with it burning on me. I stared at him knowing this would hurt him more than anything. I had to hurt him or I would be hurt too much.

“All right, specs,” he said, under more control now. He even managed to look a little cunning. “Let’s have the name and number of the inmate you got that piece of razor blade from; I’ll just put you down for a day on the line. Nobody’ll be the wiser. Play it smart, kid.”

A day on the line is worse than the five day minimum in the hole. You have to stand with your toes on a painted line four inches from the wall of a solitary confinement cell, your nose touching the wail and your hands held behind you. You must stand that way from eight in the morning until five in the afternoon — without moving. You almost go out of your mind. It is supposed to be a break. At least they let you out to sleep that night on your bunk and your cell partner is waiting for you with a dukie he made with bread and whatever there was to eat that dinner, at the risk of getting five days in the hole himself. But many a con has sat down to have a good scratch, right in front of the guard, who has to come in and take you out, undress you, put you into a monkey suit and lock you up for five days of bread and water. The captain’s expression changed from anger slowly to a wicked grin. He so much wanted me to beef on my fellow inmate, so I would be as rotten as he wanted to believe I was — as rotten as he himself was. I watched his urging smile until it faded.

Then I said in my most sarcastic voice, “Gee captain, that’s mighty nice of you to make me the offer, but I wouldn’t be able to eat that bean dukie tonight with a clear conscience knowing I was responsible for another man’s being in solitary confinement.”

He opened his mouth wide but nothing came out. I gazed back at him until I even felt sorry for him. He was helpless before my insolence. He changed weapons. His voice softened.

“Come on Specs,” he said. “I ain’t as bad a guy as you think I am. I’ve had my eye on you for some time now. Ask my flunky. I says to him many a time, ‘That Specs is a pretty good ’ I says. Ask him. You know he’s going out on parole next month, don’t you? You know he gets to score for officer’s chuck now and then, don’t you. Chase and Sandborn tastes pretty good in the mornings, and a pork chop dukie beats one made of spuds any day in the week, right? My flunky gets to pound his ear in the dormitory, too, you know about that? Got real mattresses, not them bags of straw you guys sleep on. Now will you think about what I said when I said I had my eye on you, Specs?”

He paused. He looked down at his papers and shuffled them. When he looked up again he had that sly smile on his face. I could have spit in his eye.

“What makes you such a sonofabitch?” I asked, and before he had time to think he said, equally as seriously as my voice was, “I Can’t help it, Specs, I just can’t!”?

Then he scooped up his papers, but half-way in the gesture of throwing them into his waste-paper basket he stopped, with the paper bunched in his fist, and he glared at me in baffled rage. There were tears in his eyes.

“What makes you think your so fuckin’ superior?” he screamed. You know damn well I can make it real tough on you, you silly asshole, don’t you? I can bury you in that godamn hole. You’ve already hit it for forty-five days this year and it’s beginning to show, you skinny mother! You askin’ for t.b., ain’t you? And don’t stand there a-starin’ at me with them bug-eyes of yourn or I’ll kill you where you stand and swear up and down you went for me with that piece of razor blade!”

I smiled. I had won and he knew it. He came round his desk and let me have it with his big meaty hand, right up from the floor, and he stood there, leering. I kept my smile. He started to bring up his other hand but let it drop. He returned to his desk and for some time he sat with his head hanging, breathing heavily. When he looked up he screamed, but again I knew he was beat.

“They sent you up here to be rehabilitated, Specs, and Goddamn it, I’m going to see to it that you’re rehabilitated! Thirty days in the hole; now get the hell out of my sight!”

Yes, I had won, but I had won thirty days in that black hole on two slices of bread and three cups of water a day; and thirty days on the stone floor with nothing to protect you but a thin cotton monkey suit is a bitch for a skinny guy like me. It takes five days for hunger to go and stupor to take over. In five days you can go mad.

• • •

Was that a bird I heard? No, it was the guy in with me, breathing. But he said not a word.

I could see his outline more clearly now. He was a big man. I concentrated on him, on the vision I had of him in that crack of light that came in with me, to be cut off again as every good thing had always been cut off, suddenly, before I ever had the chance to know what it was I’d he missing. There had been hatred in that convict’s eyes. I could easily by now have become a thing on which he could pin all his blame. He might be sitting over there plotting. He might be waiting for me to go to sleep in order to rape me, even kill me, thinking that might free him! I could bang on the bars of the inside door with my tin cup, call out. Oh, please dear guard, take me out of here, I’ll even smile for you, captain! You wouldn’t stand by and see me killed for the possession of a piece of razor blade, would you? Or would you?

I got hold of myself for one clear moment. I had read enough psychology to know that I might have been projecting my own fears and hatreds into the man who sat across from me on that hard, cold floor — a stranger, innocent. It may well have been weariness I had seen in his eyes as he stared at me through that brief blinding stab of light. And if it had been anger too, should I resent it? Who could blame? How long had he been there, weak from hunger and bafflement, tired beyond all endurance, keeping himself alive only on the strength of his hatred? And I expected him to welcome me?

Maybe he had lost his voice, forgotten how to use it! Maybe he couldn’t move, that he was horribly locked in and unable to even signal to me for help! I had heard also of men, driven mad by repeated stretches in the hole, who drank creosote mixed with their own waste in order to end the senseless suffering. What if he was almost gone? Had I interrupted? Was there anything I could do, or should? All he did was breath.

But I couldn’t bring myself to speak. I just couldn’t.

I returned in mind to my match-splitting. I knew that I would have to fix my whole attention on some such insignificant act or go mad. I had to forget the man in my cell and my feelings for him, for without knowing why, his presence was embarrassing as well as frightening. Had I split the full twenty-five matches in that box for whose possession I had washed another inmate’s sox. Counting the one that refused to split more than two ways because of a knot, had I the necessary ninety-eight split matches for a sockful of once-used coffee grounds? Or should I trade my split matches for a week-old newspaper that would tell me what was going on in the outside world— not that I really cared anymore, but to make comparisons: like, to see if I was sane, or they. There would be the crossword puzzle, too, easy, true, but something to do. And the comics with never-aging Orphan Annie. This brought to mind my eternal question: are the ones who write in to the Personal Columns thanking St. Jude for favors received the same ones who want the world to know that they are not responsible for anything? Then I knew with dawning shame that I would trade my ninety-eight split matches for the Tribune, not for the news or for the crossword puzzle or the Personal Column, or the comics, but for the sexy lingerie ads. How miserably fucked up can a guy get?

Then with shame I realized how cruel I had allowed myself to be! I had been terrified of this man from my first glimpse and it had nothing to do with him. I had to have a basis for my fear and I had let him become a monster to me. In my madness I had given in to my own savagery. I was the one he should be afraid of; it was my own hatred I preferred to see in him. Hadn’t I been sadistic with my insolent stare and smile, my question with the captain? I had been the one to get satisfaction from the captain’s rage and humiliation; I had changed roles and had become victor while the captain had been made the victim. I was guilty of the very cruelty I condemned in guards. And now I was being unspeakably unkind to one who deserved sympathy. Gould I make up for it in some way?

It was then that he farted.

It was a squib, squeezed out to float about us in the dark, bringing back the memory of a meal. It gave him satisfaction for he grunted. Then his catchy breathing continued as before, whistling, barely going. For what seemed like hours but was only minutes I smelled the difference in the air and tried to guess what meal it was that was it’s God. By the time I had made up my mind that it was last Friday’s carp my back and ass were aching so fiercely I pushed myself away from the wall to roll over on my stomach where gas at least provided me with a cushion. Cradling my head on my shoes I embraced the cold floor as my penance and listened to the deeply mournful sound of the steam whistle from the powerhouse roof. I imagined the way the steam had risen, seconds before, straight up and I knew I had been locked up for only one hour! I had seven hundred and nineteen to go! To hell with everything!

When I awoke the solid outer door was open, light was streaming in from the hall and I knew it was time for the night count. I could hear the screw coming toward us and I knew we had to get up quickly and stand at stiff attention with both hands gripping the bars, looking as best we could like toy soldiers, though we felt more like caged animals. Not to would have meant five days added to our time. The man in with me sighed and as he moved, his joints cracked. I stole a glance. He was loathsome: massive, dark with at least a week’s stubble of beard to make him look fiercer. Why then was I excited? Was I depraved? I had an erection. When the guard was next door my partner got up and staggered to the bars and stood, slumped over with his head resting between the bars, his eyes closed tight against the lights. I jumped up and put my arm around him to prop him up, though he smelled sour. Standing the way he had could, if the guard was mean enough, get him another day.

There was trouble next door. I could hear exasperation in the guard’s grunts as he fitted the key into the lock and swung open the barred door. When he called out for his flunky and I heard that Uncle Tom call back I knew it was my captain taking the count. I heard a body being dragged across the floor. When its head bumped over the threshold some con across the way screamed out, “You could at least carry him out, you bastard!” My captain said to his Negro, “Get that con’s name and number for me, boy, or it’ll be your ass!” Then he was in front of me.

I stared at the man. I was angry enough to cry. There was something even about his neatness, the way he held his clipboard in the crook of his arm, the smell of talcum powder about him that signified the change back to our original roles. I was again the victim; he the victor.

“Was it your idea to double me up with this wolf?” I asked.

The captain just moved his lips, keeping the count going for him as he jotted down our numbers.

“I see an empty cell across the hall, cap,” I persisted, knowing I was asking for another five days, but unable to stop. “There’s another empty next door now.”

He smiled. It was a lewd smile and when he looked at my cell partner that con looked at him and I wondered if I had seen the flicker of a wink, just before the outer door was closed, giving us back to darkness again.

“This your idea of rehabilitation?” I shouted, but only the man in with me heard. He laughed.

I went back to my place on the floor, with my back against the sweating wall. After a while an article in a magazine came to me and I laughed.

“What the hell is a feminist?” I asked.


“Forget it. Some dame wrote a piece and called herself that. She sure looked tough!

He crawled over toward me.

“You like me, don’t you kid?” As he inched closer I could smell his breath as well as hear it, raspy in his throat.

“I liked the way you put your arm around me to hold me up, kid. I mean it’s been a long time since I had any fun.

His hand touched my shoulder and I shrugged it off.

“Let’s have some fun, kid,” he whispered.

“You mean like hopscotch?” I asked weakly.

You’re a good lookin’ kid, you know that?”

Did he really think I was good looking? How insanely vain can you get? There was an invitation to nastiness in his voice, and fear. Or was I projecting again?

“Let me do it to you kid, nobody’ll ever know. I won’t tell. What the hell, it’s so dark in here we could pretend it wasn’t happening. Maybe I don’t even know your name, so who’ll he the wiser? Come on, kid, let’s have some fun!”

His closeness, his warmth, his smell made me sick with fear, but I couldn’t make myself move away from him. Was it disgust I felt, or attraction?

“How long you been in, kid, a year, two? You ain’t had nothin’ but yourself, right? You think it’s wrong to do it with a guy; that the guy on the bottom is the loser, right? Bottom, top, what’s the diff? Most prison jockers change places with their punks anyway. I’ll go stew for beans with you if you want!”

His voice was in my ear, trembling, soothing me with its very excitement. Was it my voice I heard, pleading in the dark for understanding?

“Me ’n you, kid, we’re in this thing together—up shit creek without a paddle. What do we care what they say? It’ll be fun; we can forget a whole lot of shit!”

The powerhouse whistle cut through. The count had been double checked; nobody had escaped. In that time Doolittle’s words came back to me from Pygmalion, about not being able to afford moral scruples and I laughed. Then, with Shaw in mind, I recalled something from Don Juan in Hell that had to do with being used by personally-minded men as being the greatest cruelty. I groaned. In such a moment I could only be bookish? That was why so many of those prison jockers looked at me the way they did. Why couldn’t I give in? I wouldn’t have to fight as much, or spend so much time for it in the hole. What about self-preservation? Maybe it would be fun!

“You know, you remind me a whole lot of my wife,” he said. “When you put your arm around me I had my eyes closed and I thought it was her. I wouldn’t treat anybody wrong that looks like her, would I? Come on, kid, forget and let’s have some fun!”

That’s all he said he wanted—some fun. It would be wrong of me not to give in. I was excited. But I couldn’t; I was too fucked up.

His voice got harsh. I could feel his hand stiffen on my arm.

“Look, kid, use ya head! You seen me when the lights was on. I could beat you silly with one hand, even though I’ve been on bread and water for a week. Wouldn’t it be easier on you if you gave it to me, instead of me takin’ it? I don’t like to be mean, you know!”

No, nobody does.

I listened without knowing what he said as his voice sped up. It was like a movie I had seen before and hadn’t liked, but one I forced myself to stay through to the end because I had forgotten how it came out. I knew though that he was promising me his ration of bread the next day as well as his protection against any prison wolf that might find out, though of course it would not be from him. He would not think badly of me when it was over. What he was accomplishing with his voice was bringing back necessary anger. I pushed him away.

“I didn’t think you looked like a fruit,” I said, knowing this would hurt him more than anything, knowing he might even try to kill me for it.

He got up and paced the floor, kicking the shit bucket. The lid fell off and I listened to it rolling in circles until it lay flat with a whump. When at last he began to talk it was as though to himself, quiet but deadly.

I know all about you, kid. You work in the library. You think cause you read all them books that you know all the answers. What does the books say about the guy on top? Doesn’t it say the guy on the bottom is the one who’s fruit? Be honest, kid. Like, with me, kid, I always pretend it’s a woman under me. You could do the same. Here in the dark it’d be a cinch. You do look like my wife. You even feel like her and sound like her! I’m not queer!”

He crouched down close to me again. He took my hand and sat down. For a long while we sat, holding hands in the dark. When he cried I knew I had beat him like I had the captain.

“You were only kidding, weren’t you,“ he whispered. “When you called me a fruit?”

Was it madness I heard, or was it fright? The longer we sat together, hearing only the sound of cockroaches on the metal of the bucket, the more sure I was that it had been despair I heard.

“I’m not all that bad, kid,” he whispered. “Not that bad!”

I wanted to say something to him but I couldn’t; I was too occupied with my own fears. He let go of my hand and moved away.

I don’t know how long it was before I heard it or knew what it was when I did. I had lost time; I must have dozed off. I heard it like the sound of a dream: a gentle banging, rhythmical, becoming slowly real, less innocently dreamlike, a steady banging that was somehow impersonal, ineluctable. A dark patch was moving slowly back and forth across the floor in trot of me, a shadow cast there by the lights of the hall, through the open door. I was staring at the shadow of a man who had propositioned me; hearing the sound his feet made as they struck the bars of the inner door. He had tied himself to the top crossbar with his monkey suit. He was naked. He had an erection. He was dead.

Not responsible for my debts, is how it goes.

I screamed. I let my voice go as as I had never allowed it to ever before. My voice become a weapon as I heard it over and over again. I heard it, felt it in the deepest part of me, gave in to it and rejoiced in it’s fury, I was cleansed by it. And all the while my captain stood outside my cell while his flunky cut my partner down I screamed.

Why couldn’t I have let him do it to me?