An agent for a fixer came to the lockup. He assured usi we could avoid five to ten for armed robbery. We could get the charge reduced to a workhouse bit for a price.
We tapped out and got a year apiece in the workhouse. It was like a prison, only tougher. A joint is always rough when there's graft and corruption.ii Only cons with scratch are treated and fed like human beings. The walls were just as high. Most of the inmates were serving short thirty and ninety-day bits.
The joint was filthy. The food was unbelievable. The officials had an unfunny habit of putting pimps on the coal pile. I did a week on it. I was ready to make a blind rush at the wall. Maybe I could claw up the thirty feet before I got shot. I was really desperate.
After the first week I came out of shock. I started thinking about a sensible way to escape. I just couldn't get my skull in shape for another bit. It was too soon after the last one. By the middle of the second week I'd had a dozen ideas. None of them stood up under second thoughts.
I shared a tiny cell with a young con. He was only eighteen. He idolized me. He'd heard about me in the streets. I slept on the top of a double bunk. There were three counts. One in the morning, one after night lockup, the third at midnight.
One night I missed standing up for count at the cell door. I was so beat from heaving coal I'd collapsed on my bunk. I woke up an hour after the count. It gave me an idea. I kicked it around in my skull. Like all good ideas it kept growing, crying out for my attention.
I thought, "I wonder how much and what of me that screw saw when he counted me?" I tested him three nights in a row. I'd lie on the bunk when he came through to count. Each time I'd lie so he saw less of me. The last time he counted me there was only my back, rear end, and legs visible to him.
I got excited. I knew it would be easy to get extra pants and a shirt. I could stuff them into a passable dummy. I knew my first problem was to find a way to get out of line when filing from the coal pile.
My second problem was I couldn't leave a dummy in position in the cell during the day. Cellhouse cons and screws would pass on the gallery and discover it. I decided to solve my outside problem first.
At the end of the day a screw would line us up at the coal pile to be counted. We would then file two-hundred yards into the mess hall for supper. After supper we would file through hallways to the cell house for count.
There were several cellhouses. All of the cellhouses phoned in their tallies to the office. If all the tallies equaled that number of cons in the entire joint then the count was right. A loud whistle blew and the day screws could go home.
There was no cover between the coal pile and the mess hall. A screw with a scoped, high-powered rifle manned a wall that ran parallel to our line of march. It looked impossible. I lost hope. On my twenty-eighth day in the joint I noticed something.
I had been on an official pass-out of some kind. It was very near supper time. I passed the dress-in station and shower room. The front door was open. I glanced in. In the rear of it a screw was hooklocking a wooden door.
I stopped and pretended to tie my shoe. He then walked up two or three stairs and swung a steel door shut inside the shower room. He started lining up his cons for the march to the dining room.
I had noticed the shed before on the marches to the dining room. It was maybe thirty feet from the line of march. The door had always been shut. I had thought it stayed locked all the time. I couldn't have checked it with that rifleman on the wall and a screw marching with me.
In the cell that night I was as excited as a crumb crusher at Christmas time.
I thought, "Maybe that shower screw sometimes forgets to lock that shed door. Maybe he's even later locking it than today. I couldn't see what the hell was in the shed. I know there's gotta be old clothing or something. I can hide under when he comes to hook that slammer. I gotta get outta this joint. I can't pull my bit here.
"If the kid will handle the dummy end, I'll take a chance. I'm gonna talk to my cellmate about that dummy. If he'll help me, I can escape like a shadow."
I looked down over the rim of my bunk at him. I had written several bullshit letters for him to his girlfriend. So far they had kept her writing and sending him candy and cigarette money. He was a good kid. I didn't think he'd rat.
I said, "Shorty, what if I told you I could beat this joint?"
He said, "Iceberg, you're jiving. You can't make it out of here. There are five steel gates between this cell and the streets. How're you planning to do it?"
I said, "Kid, as beautiful as it is I can't do it without your help. Now here it is."
I ran it down to him. At first he was leery. I told him to take the dummy from the floor under his bunk. Put it on mine. As soon as the whistle blew, unstuff the shirt and pants. Put the blanket stuffing back on my bunk. Sometime during the night before the midnight count, throw the pants and shirt over the gallery to the flagstone.
When the midnight hell broke looseiii he'd be clean. No one could prove or even suspect he had dismantled the dummy. I asked him to give me the name of a relative for record. I told him I would send him a C note from the first whore scratch I got.iv
I got his promise to handle the cell end of the plan. An hour later I gave a cellhouse orderly two packs of butts for an extra blanket. I had the stuffing. I took off my shirt and pants and stuffed them for rehearsal. He sat at the cell door with a mirror watching the gallery both ways. In twenty minutes he had the position and the rest of it down pat.
I didn't close my eyes all night. At midnight I saw the screw counting heads. He was due for a shock soon. I knew that if something went wrong they'd probably beat me to death out there on the yard.v I had to go through with it. No con misses his freedom more than a pimp. His senses are addicted to silky living.vi
I took packs of butts to the coal pile the next day. A yard runner got me a shirt and pants. I put them on over the ones I wore. That night in the cell I made up the dummy. I put it under the kid's bunk and gave him a pep talk until midnight. I even promised him I'd keep in touch and when he got out I'd teach him to pimp.
I thought the last day on the coal pile would never end. I would be sunk if there was a routine cellhouse shakedown. Finally we lined up. My throat was dry and my knees were wobbly. We were approaching that shed. The screw on the wall walked twenty paces away. Then about faced and walked back facing the coal pile gang.
I'd have to break for the shed when he walked away. I'd have to be in there when he turned if it wasn't locked. If he didn't shoot me, the yard screws would beat me to a pulp. The coal-pile screw was ahead of me. He could turn and look back at any moment. No other moment in my life has been so tense, so wildly adventuresome.vii I didn't even know if there wasn't a finkviii in the line. I tell you it was something. If my ticker had been faulty I'd have passed out.
The screw on the wall was walking away. The shed seemed miles away. I slipped out of line and raced for it. I could hear an excited whispering from the cons behind me.ix I touched the shed doorhandle. For an instant I hesitated. I was afraid I'd find it locked. My sweat-hot hands pulled it toward me. It was open!
Just before I stepped inside I looked up at the wall. The screw was standing looking in the direction of the shed. I shut the door. Had he seen me? I looked around the shed. There was nothing to hide under or behind. I could hear the cons in the shower room. They were getting ready for supper.
The steel door was half open. That screw would be out at any second to hook the shed door. There was no place to hide. It had been all for nothing. I heard a voice and the scrape of feet at the steel door. The screw was coming out into the shed! I looked up at the shed ceiling. I looked over the steel door.
There was a line of rusty bars a foot long over the door flush against a grimy window. I leaped up and grabbed two of them. I swung my feet and legs up just as the screw walked in to lock the door. I was jack-knifing my legs just six inches from the top of his blue uniform cap. I hung there like a bat.x I held my breath. He passed beneath me. I saw flakes of rust fall from the bars onto the top of his cap. It seemed forever to my agonized aching arms and legs.
I heard the steel door crash shut. I started breathing again. I hung up there for another long moment. He might come back for some reason. I swung my paralyzed legs down and released my grip on the bars. I sat on the stone steps fighting for breath. The shed was quiet as a tomb. I could hear my ticker staccato.
The worse wasn't over. That "all is well" whistle had to blow. If it didn't blow they'd come looking for me with fists, clubs, and guns. I peeped through a crack in the door. I put my ear to it. The yard was bare. I could hear the clatter of steel plates in the mess hall. Finally all was quiet. The count was going on.
I thought, "Even if the kid goes through with his end, this one night the count screw will poke that dummy to stand up to the cell door. That whistle ain't gonna blow. It's been too long already. Those cold-hearted bastards are on the way already. They'll beat and stomp me crippled."
The whistle blew! The beautiful sound of itxi was like a faucet. It flooded my eyes with tears. I did a dusty jig on the shed floor. It was dusk. It wasn't over. The only way to get over the wall was to scale and climb to the top of a cellhouse in the far corner of the yard.
Lucky for me the cellhouse sat in a deep recess, otherwise its roof would have towered above the wall. It was the only building close to a section of wall. Other buildings stairs stepped almost to the roof of the cellhouse. Maybe I'd been too eager to escape. I'd not put together a rope or hook. I'd have to use hands and feet. It sat six feet away and twenty feet above the wall.
There was only one screw on the wall after the count cleared. He'd be in his cubicle reading the newspaper or a magazine. If he looked up he couldn't miss seeing me in the glare of the yard lights.
My uniform was dark green, stained black with coal dust. Maybe on the street I'd look like any sooty steel mill or coal worker. I hadn't done too badly so far with short-term planning.xii
I had until midnight to get over the wall and out of the city. I had no scratch. I'd passed out a small fortune in tips to hotel maidsxiii, bellhops, and bartenders. Now all of them were rich compared to me. I knew several I could go to and get a few dollars. They could be found at their places of work.
There had been all the show-ups the month before and after my conviction. My face would be remembered by the rollers in those neighborhoods.xiv I thought about Sweet. I remembered his crack at the hideout to set me up for the cop of my stable.xv I threw him out of my skull.
I couldn't trust any of the pimps I knew. I'd always been a threat to them. Iceberg was really on his own. I'd have to make it to one of Mama's sisters, thirty miles away in Indiana.xvi
It was now pitch black inside the shed. I raised the hook and pushed the door open. I looked out into the yard. I stepped through the door into the yard. All was quiet. I pushed the door shut. I heard a dull metallic noise. I pulled it toward me. The hook had fallen into its loop. The shed door had hooked from the inside.
I thought, "That freak accident would confound the investigators for sure."xvii
I raced to the side of the mess hall. I'd have to get on its flat roof. I took hold of some window bars and pulled up to a standing position on the sill, I reached over and grabbed the drain pipe. I swung over and shinnied up to the roof.
I looked to my left. I could see the silhouetted figure of the wall screw in his cubicle. I looked across and up at the cellhouse roof abuttingxviii the wall. It was a long way. I walked across the roof toward the next building. I was near the far edge of the roof. I looked back at the wall cubicle. The screw was out walking the wall. He had that deadly rifle cradled in his arms.
I flung myself flat on my back on the black roof. I hoped I was invisible to him. I lay there panting. I wondered what a screw's manual said about an escaping con target. If he saw me would he scope for a skull, heart, or gut shot?xix
Finally he went back into the cubicle. Lucky for me the mess-hall roof was connected to the chapel building. The connection was a concrete ledge. It was less than a foot wide and about twelve feet long. My heavy prison brogans seemed as wide as the ledge. They slipped on the glazed ledge. The wild late April winds made the walk as secure as a stroll across a teeter-totter two stories above the ground.
I stood at the end of the ledge and looked up. I stretched my right arm up and stood on tip-toes. The chapel roof was two feet above my fingertips. I'd have to go back a few feet on that glassy ledge. I'd have to get up enough speed coming back to make a twofeet leap. I'd have to grab the outside rim of the roof's drain gutter. I wondered if it could stand my weight.
I carefully backed up six feet. I stood there trembling looking up at the rim. I looked back. The screw wasn't on the wall. I had to forget how narrow the ledge was. I threw a leg out. I whipped the other toward it. I pumped them over the gritty glaze. I heard the whispering hiss of the leather soles tromping the ledge. My arms were outstretched to the black sky. My eyes were riveted upward to the gutter rim.
I leaped upward. I felt my feet soar off the ledge. I taloned the rim. I hung from it dangling in space. My fingernails sent red-hot needles of pain through the tortured flesh at their roots. I chinned up and hurled a leg across the roof top. I rolled onto it. I lay there gasping as I watched the rifleman walk his beat. He went in.
I struggled up the steep sloping roof to the top. The edge of the cellhouse roof was three feet away. I leaped straight ahead. I flopped on my belly. The tips of my brogans were in the drain gutter. The cellhouse roof was even steeper. It was coated with squares of slippery shale. I looked up toward the top. It seemed a city block away. I started bellying up it. I dug my brogan tips into the small cracks between the shale squares.
I finally inched to the top. My chest was flaming. I lay astraddle the six-inch top of a double precipice. The two sides of the roof formed a steep pyramid. I was on top of it. The six-inch top seemed as thin as a wire. Through a dizzy haze I saw the lights of the city winking in an ocean of blackness.
I got to my feet. I started walking the tight wire like a circus performer. The winds were savage up here. They kicked and punched me. I teetered and swayed on the wire. I looked down over the right precipice to the street far below. Through a fuzzy blur I saw auto headlights darting through the night like tiny fireflies. My skull almost blacked out. I jerked my skull away and glued my eyes to the wire.
It was like an age before I reached the end of the cellhouse. If the screw came out now I'd be in full view. Even from the inside he could spot me. I stood shivering. I looked down twenty feet to the top of the three-foot wide wall. I couldn't turn back. I couldn't just stand there. It was a cinch I couldn't expect to keep balance if I hit the wall feet first.
I dropped, legs opened wide. I heard my trousers rip. The inside concrete edge of the wall top gouged into my inner thigh.xx My rear end crashed against the concrete. My skull reeled in pain as I sat in the cold saddle. I swung my gouged left leg from the inner side of the wall. I scooted back on my belly to my fingertips.
I hung there for a moment. I felt blood running down my left leg into my shoe. I let go.xxi I struck feet first. My butt and back took the rest of the shock. I lay there on my back in a drunken fog of exhaustion, pain and breathless joy.
It was at least ten minutes before I could stand. I limped away for a hundred yards. I turned and looked back at the joint.
I thought, "Those dirty white folks are gonna pace the floor. Their assholes are gonna twitch. They're gonna call me a million black-nigger bastards and sonuvabitches. One thing they can't deny in their cruel secret hearts. I outsmarted them.xxii It's gonna hurt 'em to the rotten quick that a nigger did a black Houdini outta here. No screws' skulls busted and no bars sawed.
"They're gonna foul their chances to catch me after the midnight count.xxiii They'll search the yard and joint for a week. Their asses will turn blue. Their skulls won't let 'em believe a nigger was clever enough to ghost outta here."
I turned and hobbled toward the State of Indiana.
- Isn't this as suspicious as all get-out, coming as it is a week after attacking the agent wife of a guy known for easy shooting who "maybe" had organized connections ? Hm ? [↩]
- Making graft and corruption an excellent idea in general. Figure it out, these two jokers paid to be in the workhouse. Yes ? Only idiots and organized imbeciles mind corruption. [↩]
- Wouldn't it be smarter to do it after midnight, before morning ? [↩]
- Doesn't the candy girlfriend solve both ends of this ? Fingertrapped by loose ends, as it were, what a beautiful image. [↩]
- It's okay, if he needs to he can just run off another bale in a castle in Switzerwaii. You can take this queer scratch anywhere, even a bank, there's no difference. It's a genius idea, he could just string them on forever.
O wait, sorry, reading book from the wrong skullbone over here. Carry on. [↩]
- It was the light blue chiffon dress and the spray of blood, wasn't it. [↩]
- Corruption ftw. [↩]
- Jailhouse spy. [↩]
- If said guards didn't notice this they were terribly inept rookies. A schoolteacher manages this much. [↩]
- "Then I farted. Loud." [↩]
- Truly there's nothing greater than perversion, the simple, ignorant naturalcy of a world carrying on as if nothing had changed when in fact everything has. Subversion comes close, but perversion takes the crown. [↩]
- Easier to remember and more difficult for circumstances to upset, in any case. [↩]
- Isn't it a wonder he systematically (and apparently, his social group structurally) hits on waitresses, but absolutely never hotel maids ? In my experience the ex whores and whores to be are nurses, policewomen, hotel maids and beauticians in that order ; while waitresses are ditzy "college" graduates, "artists" and other such femscum of zero value, sexual or otherwise. Mayhap the world has changed. [↩]
- Maybe, though even if they remembered the face they wouldn't necessarily know they're not supposed to be seeing it. [↩]
- What stable ?
Oh, the stable that he lost anyway and within a week, is that the stable we're talking about ? Okay, what of it ? [↩]
- Heh. That's quite some "being on his own", isn't it.
The logic of what he's saying, if you're curious, is that he's drawing a distinction between the productivity of "his" things, meaning, things he's built himself, after leaving the nest, and the productivity of... "his" things still, meaning, things he's inherited as a sort of fracturedly perceived birthright. His momma's sisters are "his" in this 2nd sense, but not "his" in the Bobby-da-pimp sense.
He's shedding identity, in other words, he's well on his way to squaring up. He didn't think so much of the joint pimps (also known as psychiatrists) in Leavensworth, not on the spot. Back then he thought [he had to think] himself independently-cool and chic and all ; but upon contact with the other shithouse, utterly disinterested in such niceties, they suddenly won in his mind the battle over his heart, and now his nose's wide open for 'em -- this being exactly how any square broad ever turned out -- no broad was ever born a square, like no boy was ever born a pimp.
- Absolutely, they'll never believe he was in there even if they catch him and he tells them as much. [↩]
- Abutting, eh. [↩]
- Leg, actually. [↩]
- This wasn't such brilliant an approach, there's a major artery in there. What exactly was the problem with landing feet first like normal people ? Having to bend the knees ? [↩]
- One alternative approach is to attempt to run down the wall, using the shoe adherence to provide a little bit of arrestive force, then turn and "jump" against the gravity vector. In fairness though, parkour hadn't yet been invented, and when it was finally invented it was invented by remarkably light juveniles. [↩]
- Fair enough. [↩]
- Really shoulda waited till morn, force them dirty white folks upon the unpleasant dilemma of whether to give the whole jailhouse a lockdown day off, or else deal with a yardful of prisoners on top of trying to figure out the fuck happened. [↩]