Max and the Mummy
By Thorne Dreyer
It’s half past chow and the guys in Pod 6F2 at 1200 Baker Street, Harris County Jail, are spread around the day room writing letters to their girlfriends or their moms, catching a sitcom rerun on the television or leaning against the back wall talking on one of the pay phones.
Delgado is standing by the phones, half heartedly kicking the wall. For the third straight night his girlfriend isn’t home and he wonders where she is. That, more than just about anything else, conveys the desolation and helplessness of being locked up: Where the hell is she?
Otherwise, it’s a pretty mellow night. It’s an off-night for the Rockets, so the guys aren’t packed around the television, barking instructions at the screen, cheering or howling their displeasure. Tonight the artists are out. A short black guy, bald, his face sporting several days’ jailhouse growth, is hard at work on a high concept Mickey Mouse, blending together blues and browns and reds made from dyes he has extracted from the food coloring on M&Ms and Skittles.
Paco, a tattoo artist in “the world,” is creating a bouquet of finely detailed roses on an envelope addressed to his wife.
Stoney, meanwhile, is working on a portrait of the tattooed Paco. It’s a contract job, for which he will be paid in Ramen noodle soups, the jailhouse standard of exchange. The likeness is excellent. Stoney is good; he has no formal schooling in art, but he has an eye, and excellent technique considering the limited materials he has to work with. His canvas is a Commissary handkerchief which he has primed and stiffened in milk; then he works it with pencil and ballpoint pen.
A friendly, intelligent fellow who fights weight and drug problems, Stoney lives on West Bell in Houston’s Montrose, traveling about the neighborhood on a bright red bicycle when he isn’t locked up. He has been spending time in the clinic: his leg is severely swollen and a bandage covers a raw abscess the size of a silver dollar. The hole in his leg is the result of his shooting methamphetamine without taking the care needed to hit the vein correctly. “My girl shoots up first, then she hurries me so we can have sex together while we’re both rushing.”
It’s not the first time he’s hit it wrong, and he knows he could lose a leg or worse.
“I know the only way I can stop this shit is stay away from her,” he says. “But God I love her.”
As he speaks he feathers some finely textured shadows to the handkerchief portrait of Paco.
I see that my water is boiling so I remove the stinger from my tumbler and head back to the “house” – one of five eight-man cells that open off two sides of the day room. The cell doors remain open all day, shut only at rack time. I add coffee and chocolate to my hot water and sit on my bunk, taking it all in and jotting some of it down, when out of the blue wildly-bearded Max turns to me from the mattress which he chooses to keep on the floor, and says, “Pop, what time is it?”
Why Max – the sole resident of his own private universe, who hasn’t spoken a coherent sentence in hours – is suddenly in need of the time of day I do not know. But I respond with my best guess and he quickly jots this information on one of the hundreds of sheets of lined paper surrounding him on the floor. Pages – which we all freely give him when he runs short – filled with multitudes of words and symbols. Much of it appears to be gibberish, or at least is indecipherable to the layman. For pages it is neat and linear then suddenly swirls into postmodern typographical chaos.
Wild ravings or great wisdom in some highly sophisticated code? Even money, I’d say.
A ruggedly handsome man with elegant salt-and-pepper hair and sweeping beard, Max has an almost regal look beneath his wildness. Probably Hispanic – maybe Castilian – he’d look quite comfortable in a Havana street café, sharing cigar and brandy and tales of women and other past glories with cronies of Fidel.
Max pores over his manuscript for hours on end, often working and reworking the same page, fine-tuning. When he’s not composing or editing, his art becomes verbal. Sometimes he mumbles, or carries on complex conversations with unseen (by us) comrades or adversaries and at other times he emotes, often with Shakespearean authority. He delivers his soliloquies while marching around the cell, punctuating the high points with graceful dramatic gestures. And sometimes at night he chants: soulful, calming, tribal incantations. “Uhm BAH hah lah. Uhm BAH hah lah.”
Though jailhouse culture can be thoughtless and cruel, it is also capable of surprising generosity and respect, and there is a protective attitude towards Max that is touching. We’ve got his back. For instance, if someone tries to cheat him – like pushing him into a bad trade at chow time (“Hey Max. My carrots for your chocolate moon pie!) -- we rush to his defense. Everybody trades, but nobody would accept that deal.
Max isn’t stupid. He just has other things on his mind.
Watching Max, I think once more of the old man I met during booking. While Max has more life in him then two men, this fellow was virtually a ghost. A gaunt wisp of a once black man, easily in his 90’s, he wasn’t gnarled or pocked or wrinkled. He had simply become so pale, his features so softened that there was hardly any outline left to him. He just seemed to be rescinding into nothingness.
Above each ear was an electrified tuft of white hair, as if someone had gently placed a stun gun to each temple, terrifying the unsuspecting follicles. His strange distant eyes darted around in deep sockets and when he took a step he did it in distinct increments, like he was climbing up and then down a ladder before his foot once more touched ground. His lips quivered as if continuously rehearsing his next word and when he spoke his voice was so soft and distant that the words fluttered from his lips like feathers.
We were held in this processing tank for several hours. It was a concrete room with cold concrete benches, if you were lucky enough to get one. It was a winter night and most of us were physically shaking from the chill. I watched as the old man took a roll of toilet paper and methodically – as if this were something he did every day of the year – wrapped tissue around and around his feet and ankles and up his legs until the white strips disappeared into the legs of his orange county jail pants. Then the took the tissue and carefully wrapped his neck up to his chin and ears and dropped strips like a straggly necktie into the v of his chest left bared by the flimsy orange top.
The old man simply stood there, his lips slightly quivering, looking for all the world like a mummy that had started to unravel…
I’m stirred from my reverie as Max comes to life beside me, rifling the pages of his manuscript, searching with a newfound urgency, seeking some precise passage. Apparently he finds what he’s looking for. He ceremoniously raises his hands until they freeze, palms down, fingers spread, three feet above his opus. His fingers begin to move, to roll, as if he’s playing a particularly expressive passage on the piano. Done, he folds them gently on his lap, clearly satisfied with his efforts.
This new calm is suddenly shattered by a high pitched crackle from the PA, as a deputy in the picket exclaims: “Roberts. Pack your stuff. You’re on the chain.”
My friend Shane is leaving. Like many of the men in this tank, Shane Roberts was incarcerated for a minor technical parole violation, and now he’s headed for a 45 day stint at an “Intermediate Sanction Facility.”
Shane quickly gets his stuff together and, rolled blanket under one arm, a brown bagful of his jailhouse possessions in the other, heads for the pod exit – one step closer to home.
And yes, we all follow after him, beseeching, “Shane. Shane. Come back Shane.”
But Shane’s gone and I’ve finished my coffee. And Max is peacefully curled up on his mattress, his manuscript now neatly stacked beside him.
So I pluck my ragged paperback from beneath my bunk and settle back, rolled blanket under my head, to find out if Chief Inspector Jack Oxley has finally managed to outmaneuver the Russian mafia and the treacherous yet breathtakingly beautiful Galina Lysenke to gain possession of Peter Faberge’s legendary and incredibly valuable final egg commissioned and cursed by the grand monk Rasputin just before his demise.
Whew! The plot alone tires me out. Think I’ll take a nap.
I’m dreaming of the breathtakingly beautiful Galina Lysenke when suddenly my bliss is shattered. The tank is awash with glaring light, the steel doors slam open and a phalange of deputies in riot gear comes rushing in.
“Shakedown!” somebody shouts.
“Everybody up. Down to your shorts. Single file in the day room,” they scream. “Now!” We are searched, one by one. “Shoulders on the wall, eyes straight ahead. Open your mouth. Raise your tongue. Pull your ears forward. Lift your right foot. Left foot. Now drop your shorts. Bend over and spread your cheeks.”
While we’re being routinely humiliated, other guards enter the cells and rip everything apart. They tear off the sheets and throw the mattresses on the floor – as well as all the personal effects we keep under the mattresses. They are looking for weapons – homemade shanks – and contraband.
They paw through all of our stuff then kick most of it into the dayroom where trustees pack it into garbage bags and cart it away.
Then I hear what sounds like a flock of startled pigeons wildly taking flight, and the day room is suddenly swimming in white as hundreds of sheets of paper fill the air, flutter about the tank and fall to the grimy floor.
The steel doors to the pod crash shut and the guards are gone. And we return to the devastation of the cells.
Much of our stuff is history, including the stash of ratty paperbacks under my mattress, a kind of lending library I maintain for the guys. Books aren’t easy to come by in Harris County Jail.
Meanwhile, the scattered remains of Max’s manuscript are being swept with push brooms to one corner of the day room where they will be neatly disposed of. Max sits calmly on his mattress and begins to chant as we clean up the house and then crawl back into bed.
When I awake to the sounds of breakfast being served next door I see the floor in front of Max’s mattress is covered with tufts of black and gray and splashes of red. Max has taken a disposable razor and hacked away at his stately beard; his face is now covered with patches of hair and streams of blood from ragged gashes where he’s slashed more than beard.
As our breakfast – an orange, a small box of cereal and a pint of milk – is served, Max is led off to the infirmary. I won’t see him again.
Later that day it’s my turn to say goodbye. “Pack your stuff. You’re out of here. All the way.” That means I’m going home.
As I am being processed for the street I see again the man who was a mummy, nudging a push broom down the hall between the holding cells. I watch him, thinking how fragile he appears, as if the slightest disturbance and he would crumble into pieces on the floor for the next inmate to sweep away
Retrieving my meager possessions, I emerge into the merciless Houston sun. I cross the street to McDonalds and wait for my ride.
(Thorne Dreyer, a pioneering underground journalist of the sixties, has worked as an editor, a publisher, a broadcaster, an actor, a bookseller, a public relations executive and a political consultant. He has done time in Texas for possession of a controlled substance. He now lives in Austin where he is writing a book.)
Comments from original draft:
Thorne - this is awesome - reminds me of the ladies in El Paso County Jail & Weight Loss Facility who took care of me in '99 - thanx!
Oct 5, 2006 4:47:00 PM
I concur - great piece. Thank you, Thorne !!
Oct 5, 2006 7:21:00 PM
Pepi Plowman said...
Good work, Thorne--took me right back to similar experiences in my own life and the inhumanity of humans to their fellow men. Your wry take on things gave a certain levity to an otherwise really heavy situation.
Oct 6, 2006 8:11:00 AM
Jim Baldauf said...
Really good, very engaging, and flawlessly written.
Oct 6, 2006 9:21:00 AM
Bruce Bryant said...
Good stuff. Well done. Couldn't stop reading. Compelling.
Oct 6, 2006 9:55:00 AM
james baker said...
I enjoyed the story. Good job.
Oct 6, 2006 10:14:00 AM
jon boyd said...
This is a great story. I really like the rhythm of the prose. Keep up the good work.
Oct 10, 2006 9:33:00 PM
Jessica B said...
Thorne I also enjoyed this story. I am so happy that you are writing again. It left me wanting more.
Oct 11, 2006 12:10:00 PM
debbie o. said...
gosh, it seems so real--i thoughtalot about how it must have been. good for you --- very nice writing and i really liked it. just wanted you to know i read it.
Oct 11, 2006 8:27:00 PM