Our upcoming Issue 18 will feature a mid-section exclusively devoted to visual and written artworks created by incarcerated persons, for whom the concept of transcendence is particularly relevant: transcending limited conceptions of self, transcending personal histories, transcending confinement.
Here is one of those stories…
LIFE WITHOUT POSSIBILITIES (1989)
by Kenneth R. Brydon (San Quentin State Prison)
On Sunday mornings, I’d go out to practice handball by myself. The courts and floor I played on were concrete. From twenty feet away I threw the ball in a side-arm pitching motion. The blue rubber was the size of a golf ball, and weighted about the same. It made a distinct pop as it hit the wall an inch from the bottom, and sped back on a roll. I saw Paul coming my way. “Great,” I said under my breath.
“Hey, Jarad,” he said, “how’s it going?” He threw a handball back I’d let get away.
“Everything’s fine;” I said, “what’s up with you?”
“Nothing, just enjoying the early morning before heading to church at ten.” He breathed in deep and stared up into the distance. “You ever wonder what it’d be like to be up there.” He pointed to the peaks behind the prison.
“I try not to look at what’s outside the fence,” I said, but turned and stared up at the huge rock faces, long slopes with grass, and dirt slides. They were too big for hills, but they weren’t mountains.
Paul asked, “Wonder what it’d look like to stare down on this place?”
I began throwing again; aiming at a corner. ”I’d say it’s like a stupid ass ant-farm.” I don’t know why, but I asked, “Find a cellie, yet?” I ran to the returning ball and scooped it up.
“Yeah; did you?”
“Nope,” I said, and spit. “Think I’ll take what comes in off the bus.”
“You know it’s a mistake,” he said. “You want me to help you?”
I blew out a loud gasp. “Paul, are you gay, or what?”
His face didn’t turn red the way I expected. “Aside from thinking you might ask that of your road-puppy, Mike, I’d say I fall into the ‘or what’ category.”
I asked, “So, why are you eager to be my friend now?”
“You know,” he said, “when you came out of the hole that last time, I’d hoped you might do things different, you know, maybe turn a page onto something better. Like Ricky’s now doing.”
“I’ve got life-without-parole, when does ‘better’ come in to this picture?”
He nodded. “Jarad, I’ve watched you since you rolled up here, what, seven years ago now?”
“Sure you’re not gay?” I asked.
He laughed and shook his head. “No. There’s not many of us LWOPs around, who know we’re done.” He stretched out his arms. “This is it, for you, and for me.”
“And you’re going to tell me how ‘Jesus’ will come and save me?”
“I think, He’ll speak to you Himself on that issue, in His own time.” He sighed. “But I don’t think you’ll last much longer, not the way you’re going.”
“Not that I give a fuck,” I said, “but what difference does it make; for that matter why do you give a shit at all?”
“It matters, to me,” he said. Paul looked up into the sky. “I worked in education when you came in; you got your GED the first month here.”
“So, then you gave up.” He had a pained look; hazel eyes sad. “You got into the stupidity of prison, and you’ve never left it. You’re wasting what you got.”
I snorted, and asked, “What’s it to you?”
“You’ve still got a chance, Jarad.”
“A chance?” I let the ball drop in my hand. “Didn’t you just hear yourself say we’re gonna die in this fucked up place?”
“I’ve got ten more years than you,” Paul said, “I know how much it sucks.”
“Get the fuck away from me!” I said. “You’re full of shit.”
“There’s more than one kind of ‘chance’,” he said. “You can still count, Jarad, still be a role model.”
“Oh, is that what you think you’re being?” I stepped towards him. “You think I’ve got any respect for a baby-killer?”
“And you killed who?” he asked. “Teenagers? One of them hadn’t done a thing to you; none of them deserved to die.” He pointed at me. “Being sixteen yourself doesn’t make it okay.”
I stood in front of him. He hadn’t moved, hadn’t backed away. “You don’t have shit I want.” I saw over Paul’s shoulder several people watching us.
“Too bad, Jarad, because this is only the start.” He was calm, stepping closer to me. “Next year they’re putting up another cell block,” he waved his hand at the ground, “right where we’re standing; you won’t even have a handball court to play on.”
“I don’t care!”
“But I think you do,” he said, and stepped even closer. “They’re also building another prison up North.”
“So?” I asked.
“So,” he said, and came an inch closer, “it’s a max-level. That’s where they’ll put screwups like you. They’re going to bury you; that place will tear your soul apart.”
“Paul,” I said, raising my hand and pointing a finger an inch from his face, “you ain’t the judge of my life; so go fuck yourself.”
He looked at my finger and said, “Back when I was like you … ”
“You were never like me!” I stood ready, expecting him to get off.
But he stayed cool, and waited a moment. “Back when I was like you,” he said again, “I would have broken every bone in both of your hands.”
My finger remained in his face. “And you wouldn’t tum your back on me ever again.”
He still didn’t move. “You know what, Jarad, you’re right. I’m not your judge.” He looked up at the ridge. “I realize that, as far as that big world out there is concerned, I have this coming. It doesn’t matter what I do to change.” He finally stepped back. “I get that.” He turned to leave, saying over his shoulder, “But, don’t kid yourself, there’s also no doubt the same world is glad you’re here with me, and you know they’re right.”
I picked up a handball as he walked away, and thought of nailing him in the back of the head. Instead I turned to look out and up again at the high ridge. The grass on the slopes was all brown. The hard rubber compressed in my hand. “Fuck you!” I said. A couple of guys out in the field at a distance looked at me, and shrugged after deciding it wasn’t about them.
Kenneth Brydon has written over forty short stories and three novels. His story “Rat’s Ass” was published in Prison Noir, a collection of prison stories, selected and edited by Joyce Carol Oates. He has been incarcerated for 37 years, and writing has become a great source of release from the doldrums of prison, as well as a means of personal expression that has blessed him greatly.