Menard had two fenced recreation yards. Each yard had a baseball diamond, the outfield of which was used for football or soccer. Around the playing field was a track, and toward the rear of the yard were weight-lifting areas and handball courts. The Lifers ran a concession shack outside the track, and telephones were arrayed along the fence. Gangs ran the phones—if you didn’t belong to a gang and wanted to make a call, you’d better have cigarettes ready.
That evening I was there to play handball, but mostly I wanted to talk to Tom Henry. He was already there as I approached the courts and saw that gang chiefs were using the handball courts for weight lifting, the gang soldiers standing in front of them, arms folded on their chests. Guards, probably alerted by the tower, were just now coming down to the yard to address the problem.
“Let’s stroll around the track, Big Stuff,” Tom Henry said. “If we’re waiting for the handball courts when the screws chase them off, they might get the wrong idea.”
“Good thinking. I wanted to talk to you anyway.”
“Yeah, Al told me.”
“I got the clerk job, but asking if I could cell with you was actually my number-two request. Al doesn’t know about my first one.”
“Does too. I told him you wanted to write a book telling my story.”
“How the heck—”
“I saw your ears shoot up like the antennae on ‘My Favorite Martian’ when I said I might like to see my story in a book.”
“Guess I shouldn’t take up poker, then?”
We came upon a group of weight lifters. I saw Lefty spotting for a guy with a huge tattoo and a long pony tail and even more muscles than Lefty.
“That’s Spider, biker chief for the West House,” Tom Henry said. “He’s cool.”
“How about Lefty? I’m having a hard time getting a read on him. He seems a little … volatile.”
“When they moved Voc School down to Three Gallery,” Tom Henry said, “I moved in with Lefty in West 3-15. Once I was snoring too loud to suit him, and I’m on the top bunk, so he pulls me off it right onto the concrete floor saying, ‘Don’t snore so damn loud next time.’ His way of letting me know it was his cell, like a fox pisses on a tree to mark his territory.”
“Well, if you let me cell with you I promise not to pull you off the top bunk.”
“I know you won’t, ‘cause I got the bottom one.”
“I can live with that, but take a look at my size—you really want to sleep below my bunk?”
“You seen my cellie?”
“Good point.” Tom Henry’s cellmate was only slightly taller but at least twice his weight.
“So yes,” I said, “I’d like to write your story. What do you think?”
“I told you about that guy in Greene County. He was a writer. Can you write?”
I took a minute to think about it.
“The best answer I can give you is yes and no,” I said. “Yes, I’ve been studying writing and I’ve been thinking about writing and I’ve always succeeded when I put my mind to something. So, no, I’m not a writer yet. But yes, I think I can do it.”
“So why should I let you write my story when I told a real writer no?”
“Because I’m here.”
We’d circled back to the handball courts.
“Really, what do you have to lose?” I said. “If we start and you don’t like telling your story or don’t like the way I’m writing it or I don’t like writing it, we can stop. It’s not like our time is limited.”
“You never know. Yesterday I got a notice I’m eligible for two days of meritorious good time. They’re going to take those two days off my three hundred and ninety years!”
“Look at the bright side,” I said. “By the end of the twenty-first century your sentence will have shrunk to three hundred and eighty-nine years!”
“By the way, I forgot to ask. What’d you get? Natural Life?”
Natural Life in Illinois meant you never went to a parole board.
“I got four Natural Life sentences, consecutive!”
“Consecutive?” Tom Henry thought for a second. “Maybe you should see a jail-house lawyer and get him to file for a sentence reduction. He does it right, you might get those four consecutive Natural Life sentences broke down to four concurrent Natural Life sentences.”
Tom Henry’s cellmate moved out the next day, as the clerk predicted, but it was three more days before I was approved to transfer. I got my transfer slip in the evening and first thing the next morning moved into my new home, the top bunk of Cell 3-50 of the West Cell House.
My trial transcripts hadn’t arrived yet and I’d only been in prison three weeks, so all I had to move other than state-supplied clothes and bedding were my few legal papers, a couple of books, my color TV, and an oscillating fan. Oh, and I brought a board for a shelf.
It was a good thing I had so little to contribute, because Tom Henry had pretty much filled the cell himself. His four-foot-wide desk and stool sat in the cleared area next to the bunks along with boxes of card patterns, boxes of legal transcripts, and yet more boxes of clothes, food, and sundries. The space under the bottom bunk was the extent of our expansion possibilities.
Shelves were contraband, but everybody who could afford it had one. They could be suspended above the bars in the front of the cell, and a TV could be placed on this shelf and wired to the wall. That’s how I had mine set up by the end of the first day.
Also prohibited was my fan. Fans were allowed, and almost every inmate had one, but you had to have a permit. Some had a bogus permit, which you could buy for two packs, but when a shakedown came and the guard checked it against his list, he took the fan and the bogus permit and gave you a ticket in return. The only way to get a real permit was to buy the fan from the commissary. This went for TVs, electric shavers, high intensity lights, radios, and almost any item of value. The only legitimate item I owned was my color TV.
As I settled in to watch my first baseball game in my new home, a guy whose shaved head was tattooed with a spider-web on top and an eyeball in the back stopped at the door of our cell and waved Tom Henry over to him.
I was already getting used to the flow of card customers, but this conversation took place in hushed tones. The visitor looked at me, then left only to return a few minutes later with a book he handed to Tom Henry.
“It’s true what they say,” I said. “Never judge a book by its cover. I’d have bet anything that guy was no reader!”
Tom Henry thought this was hilarious. When he finally stopped guffawing he turned so his body was shielding the book and opened it about two thirds of the way through.
“Check it out, Big Stuff!”
Inset into its final pages was a shiny piece of steel, about five inches long and one inch wide—I couldn’t tell exactly how thick it was, but it looked thin, maybe an eighth of an inch, no more than a quarter-inch—with one end taped and the other tapering to a sharp point. The book’s pages were cut out as neatly as if it had been done with a router. Somebody had put hours into it. The shank didn’t look all that lethal, but I supposed in experienced hands it could be plunged into a body to a depth of three, maybe three-and-a-half inches. Done in the right—or rather, wrong—place, it could be deadly.
Tom Henry shut the book and placed it in one of his boxes with the rest of his books.
“I’m not hooked up,” he said. “When I first got here and they tried to recruit me, I didn’t say yes, I was just friendly. They never send me on a mission but once in a while they ask me to carry or hold something. Old boy there told me he thinks he might of been snitched out, so I’m holding the book till they shake him down.”
Just then a guard stepped up with a piece of paper.
“Chapel!” He unlocked the cell. Tom Henry grabbed his Bible and started out.
“Officer,” I said from the bunk, “am I on the list?”
“No, just Hillenbrand. What’s your name?”
“Hendricks. I just moved in today, so I’m probably still on the Seven Gallery list.”
The ball game was over by the time Tom Henry returned. While he waited for the guard to lock him up, he ran up and down the gallery, talking to friends and passing out scripture wallet calendars for 1985. Even though it was late April, they went fast.
“You go to chapel for something to do, or are you serious about your faith?” I asked.
“Dead serious. I got saved at a place down home called Penitentiary Bend, believe it or not. I went there to kill myself by running my car off the road over a cliff. I was drunk at the time. But I skidded and got stuck in the ditch and I got saved. And I been saved ever since.”
“Do you think it was God that got you stuck or you being drunk?”
Tom Henry took a minute to think.
“Let me put it this way. God did it, but it was one of his easiest jobs ever! Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life could of arranged it.”
“Never saw it,” I said. “I grew up in a house without television.”
“You didn’t have no TV?”
“No, our branch of the Plymouth Brethren was very devout and we believed we should keep our homes free from the influences of the world. Well, some of us had TVs. I’d say in a few years most will. Times change.” I thought for a second about those good, sober, devout people. “But these aren’t folks who change fast.”
“Do you still consider yourself a member?”
“After I was convicted, I resigned. Some of them didn’t want to accept my resignation, but it was for the best. You can’t be a Biblical church and have a convicted murderer as a member.”
“I heard it called a cult on the news.”
“Well, if by cult you mean a small religious group that’s a little bit unusual, yes. They take the Bible as the literal, inspired Word of God. They believe we’re sinners in our natural state because of Adam and Eve’s original sin, and only the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross can satisfy a righteous God as payment for our sins.”
“That ain’t unusual,” Tom Henry said. “My church believes that.”
“They also don’t call their buildings churches. They’re ‘meeting rooms’ or ‘assembly halls.’ And they don’t have an ordained preacher, so it’s pretty old fashioned. If you want a simple way to peg them, think of them as Baptists on steroids.”
“So you’re not a member, but are you still a believer?”
How to answer that one?
“After disaster struck my family—and me?” Big sigh. “I looked around and it seemed as if blind random luck, not divine guidance, drives human affairs. Bad luck, good luck, and you never know what’s going to strike until it does. So that’s a pretty humanistic belief. It’s certainly not faith.”
“Well, if you don’t have faith anymore,” Tom Henry said, “you’re not a believer.”
“I’m willing to get my faith back, but to be honest …” Another sigh. “The truth is, I’m angry at God—which is a stupid thing to be, I know, because by definition God is good, but it makes my blood boil when people from my church group tell me things like, ‘God must have some great work for you to do.’
“God had my family killed, just to make me into something useful, to form me to fit some job? They’re talking about children who never had a chance to grow up. They’re talking about a woman who was the sweetest, most selfless person I ever knew! And a good God had them savagely murdered so I could be prepared for some work? Are they nuts? Who would even want to work for such a God? That’s no God, that’s a monster!”