Sunday, December 22, 2013

Where the Spirits take Them

 In jail, everything is up.
When breakfast rolls around, someone inevitably hollers “Yo, Breakfast up!” to alert the other prisoners of the food trays being handed through the meal slot. In the evening just before inmates are locked in their cells for the night, a jug of tea is slid against the bars and a tray of cookies or rice crispy squares or some other treat from the kitchen is placed on the slot at the front of the range. When an inmate sees it, he says “Jug up!” in a really loud voice, so the other guys know to come get their bedtime snack. On the range there’s a TV and a radio, but you can’t have them both on at the same time. The choice is usually made by consensus among the inhabitants of a particular range, and an inmate will call out to the guard station “Radio up!” or conversely “Hey officer, TV up!” and the guard on duty will throw the switch.
Even the jail guards use the lingo. On most days, barring a lockdown or some other institutional emergency, each range is let out for some fresh air for roughly fifteen minutes. The correctional officer will unlock and open the range door and yell “Yard up!”
The cold December night Allan Trudeau stood in front of Roy’s Furniture store clutching a rock, his life was most decidedly down. The doors at the shelter had closed two hours ago, and he meant to make it –he really did, if it wasn’t for that kid with the two girls on his arm who put the bill in his hat when he was pan handling in front of the mall earlier that day.
The blond on the young man’s left did a double-take and said “That was twenty dollars!”
“Hey man, I’m like one eighteenth native, or something. On my mom’s side. I don’t like to see my people suffer,” The kid responded.
Allan might have been offended, this blue-eyed sandy-brown haired white kid in the expensive bomber jacket calling him one of his people. Allan figured the kid didn’t really know what he was saying, and twenty bucks was twenty bucks after all. So instead of acting insulted, he said “Thanks, chum. Merry Christmas.”
The other girl with the young man looked back at Allan as they walked off. “You too, chief,” she said.
He vaguely remembered being at the liquor store, and the package of Canadian Classic cigarettes he bought before heading to the rail yard. He found a few of his cousins in a box car already drinking and joined the party, such as it was. (These strangers weren’t really any relation, but alcohol had a strange way of making them all family, you see.) The fireball whiskey he bought was a hit, they drank of his bottle and he of theirs. The hours flew by and the snow fall had intensified. They tried to build a fire but found nothing dry enough to burn and in retrospect that was probably a good thing. Allan sat in the corner of the car, huddling into the old green winter coat the reverend at the mission had given him. He sipped at his spiced whiskey and it warmed his innards. He followed the conversation around him as best he could, listening and nodding but never adding much to it himself. He closed his eyes and voices slurred and sometimes slipped into Cree, a language he couldn’t understand because he was Ojibwa. At some point he drifted off to sleep.
He awoke to a cousin pulling at his jacket, attempting to get at his bottle while the others watched. He slapped the hand away and slowly stood up, still groggy but defiant.
“If youse want a sip all you have to do is ask me brother,” he said.
The would-be robber raised his hands. “We been tryna wake you eh?”
Allan saw that they had already got to his cigarettes, there were Canadian Classic butts everywhere on the floor of the box car, the empty pack laying open beside a squatter.
Another of the group got to his feet, a barrel of a man in a big camo hunting jacket who had a red bulbous nose. “Come on,” he said. “Give us a drink, eh?”
He staggered toward Allan and Allan backed up and then he was falling, his back met the cold rail yard gravel with a thud. He saw two men getting down from the box car, so Allan picked up the first sizable rock he could find and brandished it, getting up slowly.
“You stay back,” he warned them. The stone was round and heavy in his right hand. “You got the other bottle of wine. The one we shared before, you drink that.”
“That’s a dead soldier,” another native man said. He was leaning against the door of the rail car, his long hair blowing beneath his grey toque. He had a thin black moustache and squinted eyes. “Come back in here. It’s warmer, eh? Drink with us.”
The man in the car was smiling, but the two others were still advancing on him, slowly. Allan had never struck anyone in anger in his life, but he waved the rock around, pretending to mean business.
Just then a beam of light appeared, and everyone looked toward its source, a rail security officer holding a flashlight, walking toward them. Al dropped the rock into his coat pocket. It clinked next to the bottle. Allan turned and began walking towards the fence at the end of the property in a hurried pace. While the security guard was shooing the squatting drinkers in the box car, Allan ducked through a hole in the fence and came out on Elgin Street.
He sipped from his bottle as he walked aimlessly toward Elm Street. He wanted to see what time it was and he remembered there was a big clock in the bank parking lot on the corner. He knew he missed the door at both shelters by now. The fireball whiskey no longer provided warmth, while he slept the cold seemed to have crept into his bones. His back was sore from when he fell out of the rail car. Why couldn’t they have just let him sleep? Maybe the cold would have taken him in the night and that would’ve been it.
He blacked out, and then he was looking at the big clock. It read twelve fifteen in the morning. He blacked out again and then he was standing outside the furniture store looking through the big picture window at the bed. It was a queen size bed, all made up with the warmest looking comforter he had ever seen. He wanted so badly to get under those covers and just melt into the mattress. He felt for the bottle, took a long tug of it, and then he used the rock to smash a hole in the glass door. He reached inside, slicing a fair-size chunk of flesh away from his wrist while turning the lock.
The police responded to the silent alarm, and followed a trail of blood from the door to where Allan Trudeau lay, snug as a bug in a rug. Allan remembered being tossed from the bed to the floor and being handcuffed and searched.
Did he have any needles? Anything sharp the officer might cut himself on?
Was he sure? He better be fuckin’ sure.
“No. No boss, no needles no knives.”
He remembered the paramedic bandaging his wrist.
“You’re one lucky injun,” The paramedic said. “If that cut was an inch up you’d have bled out.”
Allan didn’t have to be told he was lucky because he knew the next place he’d wake up in was jail. For guys like him, there were far worse place you could wake up. Like box car in a rail yard surrounded by angry and thirsty drunks.
This is how Allan ended up behind bars at Christmas, and how he would come to believe he unwillingly helped three angry spirits kill a man in the hole.


Court was quick, Allan used duty counsel. The charge was mischief. His lawyer argued the same mitigating factors for the judge to consider in sentencing: Before the courts was a forty year old native named Allan Peter Trudeau. His record was lengthy but consisted of minor offences like mischief and cashing bad cheques. He grew up in an alcoholic household and battled alcoholism himself. His mother a victim of residential schools, he spent his life in and out of foster care.
As the bald man in black at the bench called him a nuisance and handed down sixty days, all Allan could think of is whether he’d get through the admitting and discharge process in time for supper. The SDJ was a rarity among local lock-ups in that they still had a full kitchen and meals cooked on-site. God, he was hungry.
When he got to the bullpen across from the A&D office, it was three o’clock. That was good because the supper trays would roll at four thirty. Allan was a regular, so the jail staff still had his information on file.
Still no fixed address?
No. Or yeah, no address.
No allergies to food or medication?
Do you have problems with anyone in the jail? Anyone you need to be protected from?
No Sir.
“Okay,” the officer said, wheeling back on his desk chair and looking at a board with tiny mug shots pinned to it. Allan knew that every row signified a range or cell block, and which inmate was presently where. The officer had a salt and pepper brush-cut and neatly trimmed moustache. Short and compact, he looked every inch a prison guard, but there was no cruelty in his eyes. Allan liked men like him, especially among prison staff where compassion was in short supply.
“Where we gonna put you, Trudeau? You’re not a trouble-maker are ya? No dope up your corn-hole?”
Allan didn’t have to answer because he saw the hint of a smile on the man’s face. This was a man who knew his job and the types of men he was dealing with, not like some of the younger staff who played games with the guys or who thought their job was to make jail colder and crueler than it already was.
“I’ll tell you what Trudeau,” the officer said as he wheeled aside on his chair. He waved at the occupancy board. “You tell me where you wanna go.”
“I’m hungry boss,” Allan said. The wound on his wrist was starting to itch something terrible under the bandages. “Hungry and tired. I just wanna go somewhere quiet, okay?”
“Okay fellah,” The guard said while scribbling something in a notebook. “I got just the range for you.”
“C.O. McGonagle,” The admitting officer bellowed. A short, balding guard appeared in the doorway. He wore round glasses. “Take inmate Trudeau to his new home, would ya? Delta area. Five corridor.”
On the way up the stairs, the guard looked at Allan’s forearm.
“That looks nasty. What happened?”
“Don’t remember, boss.”
“One of those nights, huh? We’ll have medical take a look at that in the morning.”
The guard put one hand on the handle of the big grey door marked DELTA in black lettering and tucked his chin into his radio that was pinned below his shoulder.
“Control, door delta.”
There was a squawk from his walkie and an electronic buzz and he pulled the door open. The walls were white brick and the floor a pale green. Each section of the old jail was two corridors divided by a pipe chase. On either side was a cell block.
As they passed the guard station (Which in the Sudbury Jail consisted of a big old desk with two chairs and a computer) Allan saw that the officer in charge of housekeeping was on the floor, a tall wiry black officer he called Boss Cobbs.
The officer smiled when he saw Allan.
“Well look here, I got my cleaner back,” he said. He looked at officer McGonagle. “No other inmate I’ve assigned to cleaning duties is half as good as old Trudeau here. The floors fuckin’ sparkle when he’s done washing. A wizard with a mop, this one. How long you with us this time?”
Allan looked at the floor. He wasn’t one for conversation and social pleasantries made him feel awkward.
“Hullo Boss Cobbs,” he said. “Forty-five days.”
 For provincial offences, a convicted prisoner normally did two thirds of their total sentence. The remainder was considered time off for presumed good behaviour that they could keep or lose depending on their institutional conduct.
The tall black guard roared.
“And he calls me Boss Cobbs! Like Boss Hogg from Dukes of Hazard. Ha! Grab some bedding and a mug from the shelf over there Trudeau. I’ll be one second.”
The guard walked over to the range twelve door. Allan could see that there were a lot of young guys on that block and he could hear loud hip-hop music coming from the range television. He hoped that range thirteen, his destination, was calmer than this one.
Officer Cobbs yelled through the meal slot, “Hey Cleaner! Yo Cormier!”
“What’s up,” Allan heard one of the prisoners yell back over the television. “You need me to come out and mop?”
“No,” Boss Cobbs yelled back. “You’re fired, motherfucker!”
Allan heard the prisoner protesting and asking the guard why, and thought he should have known better. Allen knew Correctional Officers don’t owe inmates explanations. Jail was simple that way. They owe you a fresh roll of toilet paper the last roll runs out and a new razor when you give a used razor back at shower time, but other than that, they owe you nothing.
Officer Cobbs keyed the lock for the door to range thirteen and swung it open, Allan walked in holding his bedding with his mug, spoon and toothbrush on top. There was a couple of older men playing cards at one of the small metal tables in the day area.
The inmate at the table facing Allen looked up and grinned. He had red hair that had faded to mostly grey and was missing his two front teeth.
“Third cells open partner,” the man said. “You can have the top bunk. I’d take it but I got problems with my legs, can’t get up there. If you press your face to the bars you can see the TV after lockdown.”
Allan nodded and went to the cell. This was familiar to him, in Allan’s adult life he’d done time in just about every section of the jail. He made his bed and smoothed it out, then put the case on his pillow. He climbed up and laid down on top of the thin scratchy wool cover and closed his eyes.
For Allan Trudeau jail wasn’t a bad place, in truth it wasn’t much of a punishment at all. This was a place he knew. He knew the smell of the food when meals were brought from the kitchen and sound of the wheels rolling down the corridor on the meal tray. He knew the sound the guard’s boots made on the walkway at night and the tiny beeping sound when the guard would swipe his ID card through the slot of the little device mounted to the brick wall that counted how many times the officer had done his rounds. These were all safe sounds.
He knew how to mop the floors the right way so the guard’s boots wouldn’t make that sticky sound that drove the prisoners nuts at night when they were trying to sleep. He knew how hot the water in the utility alcove got when he’d fill his buckets, the right cleaner to use on the big desks at the guard station, which spray bottle to use to clean the computer monitor with no streaks. Easy stuff.
Allen had always had problems with alcohol, ever since he was a little kid. He remembered his father bringing him to the liquor store as a boy, and he remembered when he learned to read one of the signs in the store said Spirits. His grandfather talked about spirits, spirits of the air and the water and of animals. He wondered what kind of spirits were for sale in a store.
When he asked his father, his father laughed and told him that the bottles on the shelves put the spirits in you.
When Allan began drinking, he thought of alcohol as a spirit, a warm spirit that made the world around him come alive. Colors were sharper, sounds more crisp and he forgot about how uncomfortable people made him feel. After a while, when the spirit wasn’t in him he’d hear it calling to him, like a sweet song promising to make the world seem like a warmer, friendlier place. When he started drinking every day, the alcohol spirit would make him do foolish things and he’d wake up in strange places sometimes surrounded by strange people and strange sounds. When Allan was in jail, he would feel sick for a few days as the spirit left him, and then he’d feel better. He would remember what it was like to have a clear head and would feel bad about things he had done while drinking and promise himself that he’d not drink another drop. In jail, he knew hoping for a drink was pointless because it was impossible, and soon he would stop hearing the spirit’s song altogether. Allan considered the best part about doing time in jail was the knowing. Knowing he’d eat every day and knowing where he’d wake up every morning.
For guys like Allan, jail was easy, life was hard.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, man. What a great piece of writing. You've got a voice and a rhythm most writers (including me) would sell their souls to possess. Ever thought about penning a novel?