When I was thirteen, I broke a kid’s jaw with my skateboard. I always said, when I talked about it at all, that I didn’t mean to do it. A bully, a punk, he tried to take what belonged to me: that same board with a pirate skull on top and flames circling the wheels. I defended what was mine, lashed out, took him down. I don’t remember the boy’s name, but I see him lying on the concrete—face torn, blood pooling from lip and eye, hands reaching to cover the wounds then pulling away as if the feel of his own fluid revolted him. I hear him screaming, although no scream came out—more a whistling whine like a drill from somewhere inside him. I rolled away before the cops arrived and didn’t go back to that skate park for two years. Never saw the kid again, and no one showed up at my house to ask me questions.
I didn’t want to hurt him, but part of me wonders if the violence had been there, waiting for some kid like that to come along. Would I have scrapped all through high school and gotten in bar fights during junior college—winning a few, losing more—or would I have spared myself other people’s blood mixing with mine on floors, parking lots, and driveways of my past? If not for that day, maybe I wouldn’t have broken that bottle or sliced up that other man fifteen years later, ripping a gash in his arm so long and deep he nearly bled out on the floor at Mitzi’s Tavern. Maybe I wouldn’t have ended up at Boone Country Correctional Center, fourth floor, POD A, cell one—right next to the guard’s desk
Yeah, it’s possible. Could be other reasons, too. My counselor, Ms. Colby, says I have anger issues related to my relationship with my father. She’s recommended that I take her anger-management class every Tuesday and Thursday at nine in the morning. That makes me angry, but I know it will look good when I go in front of the Parole Board next year. I need all the help I can get.
Ms. Colby stands in front of the class, her form so gray and shapeless in her suit as to resemble a cloud of smoke. Her brown hair, though frosted, she keeps pinned back in a bun as if to make her seem more genderless. She’s a woman working in a men’s medium-security prison in southern West Virginia. She knows up front that some cons will try her—she’s young and has a body under those amorphous clothes, even if no one can imagine what it might look like. Still, she clarifies with her appearance and demeanor that any man who makes the effort is a fool.
Of course, there are lots of fools in prison—seven of us sitting in desks in this side room off the education wing. There’s Shorty and Lee who I don’t know well, T.D. and Benny from my POD, and Cincinnati and Andre the Giant, two titans who like to rough each other up on the basketball court in a way that could come either from serious menace or the spirit of camaraderie—none of us watching, including the guards, can tell.
“Mr. Macy,” Ms. Colby says, aiming her Bic pen at me as if it’s a laser pointer, “where does anger come from?”
“Bulldog,” I say. The staff won’t use our nicknames here, but sometimes when they hear one enough, it gets in their heads and they slip.
“What’s that?” she says.
Rather than repeating myself, I tell her, “I don’t know. Life’s frustrating, I guess.”
“We’re in prison,” Andre the Giant mocks. He’s slouching at his desk but still looks taller than anyone in the room aside from Cincinnati. “Why you think he’s angry?”
Ms. Colby shivs him with a look that shuts him up, then turns her bladed lips up, grinning. “Sure, prison stirs up a lot of anger. But you weren’t always here, and I want you to think about where it came from before you got here. And, yes, Mr. Macy…”
“Bulldog,” I say.
“…life’s frustrating. For you right now, back then when you committed your crimes, further back when you were trying to do normal-people things, and maybe before that. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
Shorty says, “When we were kids.” His voice sounds deep but straining and kind of funny like he’s playing the blues on kazoo.
“Here comes the bad-daddy talk,” says Cincinnati.
Benny says, “Absent-daddy,” his tone mocking the words.
“Which-one’s-my-daddy,” says T.D.
“Yes,” Ms. Colby tells them, waving her hands for everyone to hush. “What about you, Mr. Macy?”
“Bulldog,” I say.
“I was talking about your life, how things were for you, when they went astray. What was your father like? What kind of man was he?”
I’ve been in classes like this before. Whether the subject is substance abuse, changing thinking, or reintegration, the counselors in charge attempt the same trick, picking at the scabs of childhood in search of pus and blood that can mean only parental abuse or neglect. They mean parents. The books specify parents, stating the word in bold letters. But when it comes time to talk, the counselors all say “father” instead. Your father beat you. Your father taught you how to drink. Your father wasn’t there. Your father slept around.
Ms. Colby, like the rest, carefully avoids mentioning our mothers because mothers are sanctified among the cons. Should one of us open up about how Mama had too many boyfriends or smoked crack or passed out on the porch some nights, any offhand comment from one of the other inmates, however tame, could lead to violence. Ms. Colby focuses on our fathers as if they held our knives for us and squeezed our hands as they pointed our pistols toward the moon.
“Fine,” I tell her. “Normal guy. Shirt and tie. Worked hard. Sold drugs … not that way. New pills from the manufacturer. He pitched them to doctors, that’s what I mean. He never hurt me. Not his fault he got a big dumb bulldog for a son.”
She grimaces, and for the first time today, lines decorate her cheeks like three parallel smiles or like she’s been clawed by a cat that turned out to be a perfectionist. She says, “Your dad was a salesman. Did he spend a lot of time on the road, a lot of time away from home?”
“That didn’t bother you?”
“Not that I remember.”
Ms. Colby nods. “What about when he came back?”
“What about it?”
“Were he and your…? Did your parents get along?”
“Most of the time.”
She nods again. “Fights?”
“How did you feel about that?”
When I was six, they sent me to my room, then went into theirs and shut the door. I sat on my pale blue carpet and listened through the air vent as they shouted at each other—not cussing, no one fueling violent rage as far as I could tell. I didn’t know what they were arguing about, except that something happened on the road, and something else happened here at home. It was as if both my parents were bomb-laden freight trains barreling toward each other on the same stretch of track. I remember crying, which I haven’t done much in the years since. “I guess I didn’t understand it,” I say, just to say something.
Ms. Colby accepts my response, offers a few words of encouragement, then moves on to the next person. She asks another question.
I don’t hear her. I’ve stopped listening, instead staring around this small space with its white cinderblock walls and the red stripe painted all the way around us as if the genius who designed this place thought that was how every wall in a prison should look, not realizing inmates would spend their time in the center of the room, not circling it. I wonder if this used to be a patient’s room in the days before BCCC, back when it was still Boone County General Hospital in an era of thriving coal mines and a local population of underpaid immigrant laborers. Maybe people died in here. Maybe the stink of sickness lingers, but we’ve lost the ability to smell it.
“Mr. Macy, are you still with us?” Ms. Colby says, pulling me out of my trance so fast that I don’t have time to mumble “Bulldog” in reply.
“Uh,” I say, “sure.”
“Mr. Dawson, please repeat what you said. I don’t believe Mr. Macy heard you.”
“Okay,” says T.D. He looks my way and tells me, “I’m just saying my parents were that way. They’s always fighting. Always. They messed each other up pretty good sometimes. And what you said, you feel me, about not understanding? That’s how I was, too. I thought my folks yelling and screaming and whooping each other was normal.”
Cincinnati says, “That’s every day in my house.”
“We’ll come back to that in a minute, Mr. Holt. Mr. Macy…”
“Bulldog,” I say.
“…I want to know how it makes you feel to hear that some of these guys went through the same sorts of things.”
I think about it before answering. “Maybe it is normal,” I say. “Maybe everybody’s a bunch of assholes.”
“But they’re not. There are plenty of good people out there. Good parents, good kids. Maybe you’re a good person and don’t know it.”
“I’m here, ain’t I?”
“Because you committed a crime, not because you’re a bad person. Most folks don’t … what are you in here for again?”
“Right,” she says. “Sorry. Anyway, most folks don’t maliciously wound other folks. But Mr. Macy…”
“Bulldog,” I say.
“…does that make you a bad guy?”
Cincinnati jokes, “State of West Virginia says it does.”
“No,” I say, ignoring the baller’s sarcasm. “Guy had it coming. Every fight I’ve ever been in, the guy had it coming.”
“You blame your victim?”
“Nah, them guys would say I had it coming, too. I’ve been fighting all my life. Took it too far this time, that’s all.”
Ms. Colby accepts that as my truth and moves on to Shorty who goes off on a tangent about how he once had a bulldog named Charlie and now he’s sitting in a room with a Charlie named Bulldog. His slow, stretched, tires-on-gravel voice grates on me, and I clench my fists a little, then relax. Shorty’s a good dude. He doesn’t intend a slight, and I have to admit that, true or not, his story’s pretty funny.
Nobody calls me Charlie, though. Not ever. Out there, I had been Charles Macy, volunteer firefighter, EMT, and occasional bouncer at one of the gay bars in Huntington when I needed extra cash. Nobody called me Bulldog out there either. My first day at the Western Regional Jail in Barboursville, one of the pretrial felons asked what my nickname was. Seemed like everybody had one, and I said “Bulldog” without thinking about it, so I could pick mine before some other jackass gave me one that stuck. I felt like the kind of guy who’d be called Bulldog: mean, ugly, and oversized, but with short, thick legs that added leverage and raised my threat level.
Ms. Colby never asks about the nickname, not questioning whether my dad called me that when I was a boy. He didn’t, though I like to imagine him doing so the day I came home from the skate park. I picture him sitting in his recliner, staring at the TV, watching a brain-dulling movie on the Lifetime Network. He’s still wearing his gray button-up from work, but he’s lost the red tie. I see myself dropping onto the beige sofa across from him, waiting for a commercial, then telling him the whole story: what I did, what almost had been done to me. I think of him nodding his tiny head. I hear him grunt. I wait as he sips his Scotch and water that I can smell from a distance as if someone set a bottle of English Leather on fire. In my head, he says, “That’s good, Charles. You’re a bulldog, son. Don’t take shit from anybody.”
Of course, I never told my father, and he wouldn’t have approved. “You’re not one of those kids,” he’d have said. “The only things you gain from violence are hurt and guilt, but there’s more than that to lose.”
“Thirteen,” Cincinnati says, shattering my illusions.
“Mr. Dawson,” Ms. Colby says, “what about you?”
“Anybody else?” She looks around the room, sees me staring dumbly, and says, “Mr. Macy, what about you?”
“Bulldog,” I say, buying time to figure out what she’s talking about.
She lets me off the hook, asking, “Did your parents get divorced?”
Oh, I think. “No. I mean … no. They were going to. Told me they would, but they stuck it out.”
“How old were you when they told you?”
“Seven,” I say. “Right after my birthday.”
“Were you sad?” she says.
“I don’t know,” I say. What a stupid question.
“Bulldog,” I say.
“…there’s a lot of anger in you. We’re just trying to figure out why it’s there.”
“Yeah, man,” Cincinnati says, laughing under his hand. “Why you so pissed off all the time?”
“Don’t know,” I say. “I swear.” I don’t say my head’s spinning like a silver coin. I don’t say, Yeah, you’re right, it’s all my dad’s fault. It’s none of her business that my father got his diagnosis before papers could be drawn up or signed. I won’t describe how the next six months were full of anxiety, testing, and hospital rooms much like this one used to be, with cinderblock walls, tile floors, and the constant smell of old paint and fresh mop water, or how the eight months after that were loaded with blood, shit, lost hair, skin burns, vomiting, weight loss, and ultimately sunken flesh, blue lips, and dead eyes my mother tried hard not to let me see. Ms. Colby and these men won’t ride in that hearse with me for free. It’s not their road. It’s not their grave.
I might open up about the skate park, though. That’s a Bulldog story if there ever was one. I’ll describe in careful detail how good it felt to turn the valve and release all the pressure that had built up inside me. I’ll give them every nuance: the red cement, the chip in my board. And if they ask, I’ll assure them that my father approved. Maybe that will satisfy Ms. Colby with her smug grin, while all the men will wish they had a dad like mine.
[Check out Ace Boggess' back porch interview here]