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Chapter Five

 

I’d uttered the last three sentences with such vehemence I was trembling.

Tom Henry sprang off his bunk.

“Man, I’m sorry! I wouldn’t never—I didn’t mean to get you like this!” He paused, searching for words. “You got a lot of anger in you.” He started to sit back on the edge of his bunk, then before his butt hit the mattress he sprang right back up again. “But you can’t call God a monster!”

“I know,” I said. “I got carried away. For the last year and a half … I’ve had to take it and take it and take it, and I’ve never had a chance to talk it out with anyone. I can’t talk to my family or Susie’s family like this. It would just kill them. Just knowing I’m losing my faith is tearing them to pieces. So I’m really glad to have you to talk to. I hope you aren’t sorry I moved in.”

“No, Big Stuff, it’s cool. When I get to telling you about how low I got before I found God, you’ll understand. But anyway, I’m glad you’re here and I’m glad to be here for you. I mean that, bro.”

“All right. Let’s just put this down as ‘to be continued.’”

But we never did continue that conversation—we never needed to. I’d opened my heart to Tom Henry and he’d received what I had to say, despite his disagreement. A bond of understanding had formed between two guys about as different as two guys could be.

 

I went to sleep after that, but Tom Henry didn’t—not because he was agitated by what I’d told him but because he didn’t sleep much at night. That’s when he colored his cards. Bored officers and night-shift sergeants would stop by to chat—Tom Henry would make coffee, and they’d usually bring along some treat from the officers’ kitchen along with the latest prison gossip: which guard’s wife was sleeping with which captain, who got arrested for bringing in drugs, which inmate got stabbed and what his condition was.

The next morning, I was heating up a cup of water when Tom Henry burst out laughing.

“You got coffee?” he said.

“You know I don’t.”

“So what are you going to do with that hot water?”

“Drink it—I’ve kind of gotten used to it. And it’s cheaper than coffee.”

“Never thought I’d see the day!” Tom Henry said. “A millionaire too cheap to buy coffee!”

“Not cheap—thrifty. And I’m no millionaire.”

“Anyway, I should warn you. Sampson told me last night they’re going to stop selling Magic Shave.”

“So? We don’t use Magic Shave.” Black guys used it instead of razors—it dissolved the beard. White guys couldn’t use it because it burned our skin.

“No, but the reason they’re yanking it from the commissary is ’cause some idiot threw a boiling mixture of Magic Shave and baby oil in a nurse’s face—put her in the hospital. Anything the commissary sells that can hurt anybody will be coming off the list. Anything sharp, like tweezers or toenail clippers. Anything guys can hurt themselves with, like extension cords or three-way plugs. Anything can be used as a weapon, like canned food. What I’m worried about is what they’ll take off next.”

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The following day I bought a typewriter and a high intensity lamp, four stingers, two six-foot extension cords, four toenail clippers, and two tweezers—just in case. I also got some Little Debbie cupcakes and instant coffee.

Little Debbie snacks sold well in the all-male prison, partly due to implied promise of the slogan on each package: “Little Debbie has a treat for you.” But the commissary item I’d fallen in love with was the stinger, a small resister wire inside a coiled metal tube. You hooked it over the side of a coffee cup with the metal part immersed in water, then plugged it in. In a minute the water would be boiling and you could make coffee or tea.

When I brought it all back to the cell I told Tom Henry, “I want you to acknowledge that I bought coffee and paid for it out of my stash of millions.”

“And what you going to do now, millionaire?”

“Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to turn on my millionaire color TV, brew myself a cup of millionaire coffee, and watch some millionaires play baseball.”

It was the White Sox versus the Yankees, and it promised to be a good game. After the White Sox beat the Yankees in eleven innings, a victory shout reverberated throughout the cell house.

“Of course,” I said. “Most of these guys are from Chicago.”

Then the yelling and the bar-banging started.

Debris flew through the air. Fires blazed on the gallery, choking smoke rolled in. Henry grabbed a sheet, pushed it into the toilet, then hung it on the inside of the bars in the front of the cell. It helped, but after a while the smoke started curling in around it. Inmates started yelling.

“I can’t breathe!”

“Call the nurse!”

“Cell 5-41! My cellmate’s got emphysema. He stopped breathing. Hurry!”

Guards streamed up the stairs and spread throughout the cell house, stomping out fires, yelling that anyone inciting anything was going straight to Seg.

Segregation, in a maximum security prison, was reserved for the baddest of the bad. A lot of the inmates were like Tom Henry and me, just trying to do their time and be left alone. But as for the rest, you couldn’t appeal to “the better angels of their nature.” You just threatened them with segregation.

 

The next morning the doors didn’t roll. Breakfast came late, gelatinous oatmeal brought to the cell house by guards and left in the food slot.

We were on lockdown.

Lockdown meant no school, no chow hall, no yard, no chapel, no details, no assignments, no Lifers selling wares on the galleries. And come morning, the lockdown would turn into a shakedown.

It was the shakedowns that finalized a lockdown’s dehumanization process. This was when they took away our few small comforts: curtains for privacy or to shield us from the cold, shelves to hold books or TVs, electric fans and TVs we’d bought cheap from inmates about to be released, a plastic clipboard or a 4H pencil, a homemade easel for painting—things that allowed us to occupy our minds. So we prepared for the worst, hid our treasures, and worried about what we couldn’t conceal.

Since we didn’t have to get up in the morning, I stayed up that night while Tom Henry worked on cards. I was reading his legal transcripts when Officer Alms showed up with fried chicken and cookies from the officer’s kitchen.

“They’re not sure when we’ll be off deadlock,” he said. “Some say Monday, some Tuesday, and I even heard there might be partial deadlock through next week.” Partial deadlock meant you got out of your cell but only for meals.

“Two whites were badly beaten, one till his face is just pulp. That nurse who had hot Magic Shave and baby oil thrown in her face has permanent burns. They’re bringing the Academy up from Springfield to do the shakedown.”

“Well, you’re a fountain of good news!” Tom Henry said.

I waited until Alms had moved on.

“Why is the Academy so bad?” I asked.

“Their guys are trainees,” Tom Henry said. “They do the shakedowns by the book. Guys like us, we want guards who know us ‘cause they know we’re not doing nothing wrong so they don’t mess with us. Academy guys, they don’t know us. They’re real assholes.”

The shakedown crew made it to us the next day.

The door rolled and the guard said, “All right, up and out onto the gallery, just underclothes.”

We were handcuffed to each other through the wire mesh across from the cell and stood out in the gallery in our undies. Our Academy guy took our fans and permits, a shelf, the clipboard, a curtain, a two-inch stack of Tom Henry’s yellow cardstock—and threw it all onto the gallery floor.

He took so much time in our cell the rest of the crew had long since finished with our neighbors’ cell and had moved down the gallery—which meant I was able to use my free hand to pass the shelf, the clipboard, the curtains, and the cardstock into the next cell while Tom Henry kept the young trainee busy with his chatter.

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Saturday morning brought a yell from downstairs at about nine.

“Hillenbrand! Visit!”

Tom Henry bird-bathed, shaved, and dressed in his best clothes. In Menard they issue you prison clothes at orientation but you can buy better clothes from the Lifers: blue jeans, a street-quality blue shirt with no stenciled letters, a denim jacket, and athletic shoes. Few inmates had Lifer clothes—they were a luxury item.

Tom Henry yelled downstairs to the Flag, the control box where guards were stationed.

“Hillenbrand. 3-50. Ready for my visit.”

A guard materialized, unlocked our cell door, and Tom Henry was gone.

 

Later that evening he told me about it. As soon as he got to the visiting table and hugged his sister, kissed his mother, and shook hands with his father, he gave them his big news.

“Guess who I’m celling with,” he said. “David Hendricks from Bloomington! And he’s going to write a book about my story!”

“Hendricks?” his father said. “Hendricks! How can you cell with him? You know what he did?”

“He says he’s innocent, Dad, and I believe him. He’s one of the nicest guys I ever met.”

“I’ll tell about your nice guy. A salesman from Bloomington who knew their family real well told me all about it. Hendricks belonged to a cult where the women were sex slaves and the men swapped them. The reason he had an airplane was he flew drugs across the border. That’s where he got his money. And he had models stashed in apartments. One of them demanded he kill his family and marry her or she’d blow the whistle on him.”

“Dad, don’t you think that would’ve been on the news?”

“You can’t trust the media, they cover everything up. Look at your case, the way they …” He trailed off, shaking his head.

“Well, anyway, I’m celling with him,” Tom Henry said. “You know, there’s not a lot of Eagle Scouts in here to choose from.”

“Sure, but Hendricks? Well, I could never control you when you were in my home and I sure can’t control you now. I’ll watch the newspaper for him killing you, maybe then they’ll execute him like they should have done before.”

A decade later, as I sat in the living room of the comfortable Hillenbrand home on the north edge of Streator, Tom Henry’s dad told me how happy he was when he first heard his son was celling with me.

“I knew he’d be in good hands,” he said.

I just nodded and scribbled on my legal pad.

 

We were still discussing the visit when Dave, a West House enforcer for the Northsiders, interrupted from the gallery.

“I know the big guy just moved in and got settled and all,” he said, “but I got bad news.” Tom Henry hopped out of his bunk and went up to the cell door.

“What’s up?”

“They’re putting the gallery workers in the first cell of each gallery, and the Northsiders got Three Gallery. So me and Little Johnny need to move in here. You guys got to find somewhere else to live by day after tomorrow.”

The cells with 50 in their number were adjacent to the stairs and right above the Flag—an administrative move to help the guards communicate more easily with the gang leaders, who were assigned as gallery workers, to give them freedom of movement and communication. It seemed a bad way to run a prison, letting gangs enforce the rules. It might be efficient, but the enforcement was capriciously violent.

“So what do we do?” Tom Henry asked after Dave moved on.

“We’ve got to get another cell together,” I said. “It’s the only way we can do your story.”

“I know two white cells with one guy in each,” Tom Henry said. “Lefty’s alone down the gallery, and Rick’s cellie just left. Rick can move in with Lefty.”

“You think he’d do that?”

“I can talk to the Northsiders. They tell him to move, he’ll move.”

“Okay, if we have to. But you know what they say, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

“Screw the honey, give me a big fly swatter!”

“Be that as it may,” I said, “let me offer Rick some honey, okay?”

A few hours and a $20 book of Lifer’s coupons later, we were making preparations to move into Cell 3-49, where we hoped to stay, uninterrupted, for at least a year. We had to dismantle everything we’d wired, glued, or hooked to the wall or ceiling, and Tom Henry had to take his card display off the wall.

Less than a week later another Northsider appeared at the bars of our new cell.

“I got bad news, homey,” he said. “Looks like they screwed up and didn’t open enough cells for all the organizations. So you’re probably going to have to move out of this one too.”

“When?”

“Not yet. I’m just giving you a heads up.”

There were no more white openings on the gallery. Finding two anywhere would be tough, finding two in the same cell impossible. All we could hope for was that the rumor was just a rumor.

That night Tom Henry sat on his stool, cutting out a design for a card he planned to send his son, Thomas. His fingertips gripped the miniscule blade he’d acquired by smashing the plastic off a pencil sharpener.

“If I ever get out of here,” he said, “I’m going to buy a knife three feet long, big as a sword, and a gigantic scissors, and hang them on the wall as ornaments—just because I can!”

“In the meanwhile, now’s as good a time as any to start telling your story,” I said. “Why don’t you lie back on that bunk and tell the good shrink about your childhood?”

“Which reminds me,” Tom Henry said. “You know who I saw the other day?”

“Give me a hint,” I said.

“Well, what reminded me is this guy was examined by psychiatrists.”

“Is Runner back from the Bug House?”

“Naw, Big Stuff, this is a guy from Death Row.”

“The clown?” I said.

“John Wayne Gacy himself. He was in chains and four guards were taking him to the medical building.”

“Now there’s a psychiatric session where I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall.”

“I’m sure he talked about his childhood,” Tom Henry said.

“This guy had sex with young men, tortured them in this attic, killed them, buried them in his crawl space, and they have to examine him to see if he was sane?” I shook my head. “What I’d like to see them do is interview a hundred normal guys, then predict which one is going to go nuts. They get that right, they’ve got my respect. Like those talking heads on TV. The stock market dives and the next day they tell you why. Where were they the day before?”

“Are you going on a rant, or am I going to tell a story?” Tom Henry said.

“Good point, let’s get to it.” I grabbed my legal pad, clipboard, and pen.

“But first, while I’m on shrinks, let me tell you a cartoon I thought up. A psychiatrist is showing a patient some Rorschach ink blot cards, and the patient is throwing up his hands and backing away, saying, ‘Don’t show me that filth! My mind is pure!’”

“That’s actually funny,” Tom Henry said, laughing. He grabbed his coffee cup.

“So where you want me to start?”

“Anywhere you want,” I said. “If you can’t think of a good place, just start with the first thing you remember.”

“All right, I’ll start with my childhood. Early days.”

“And keep in mind, I don’t know shorthand. I’ll write as fast as I can, but if I can’t keep up I’m just going to let you rip, and what I don’t get, we’ll come back to. Okay?”

“Yeah, and if I get too excited, just tell me to slow down.”

“It’s a deal.”

The story Continues!

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