A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden (6 page)

Teal breaks in to tell us how the program is structured. “For now you will go back to your cell and write a life autobiography. It can be as long or as short as you like. You have the rest of the week to finish it.”

The guy sitting near the door — I'm pretty sure it's Buster Longines, a genuine hardcase out of Ontario — rises to his full five foot, five inches, stretches, and says, “I don't give a rat's ass what he wants, I'm going to the weight pit.” Buster's a thoroughbred alpha male, a prison wheel that's done a gang of hole time. He ambles out the door like an aging fireplug.

Alyssa beckons to me. “We need to talk to you, we haven't done your initial treatment team meeting yet.”

Teal bids me to stay seated. “Two things,” he begins, “We don't think you were entirely straightforward in your answers, which is common in self-reporting tests. Also, the program psychologist has read your file and diagnosed you with an antisocial personality disorder.”

Nothing gets by these guys. My file is only filled with thirty years of robberies, heroin, and mayhem.

Morgan, an older con who wears a wooden cross around the neck, is hanging out with D near my cell door. They are looking for some writerly advice on how to get their autobiographies started. “Keep the pencil moving,” is all I can tell them. I head down to the library to sign out a book on Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy.

For most of the men in our group, serving time kindles a singular construct; for them the world is the thing they stand on. But between these shelves, amongst living books, the shape of your world can shift a thousand times, once for each title, or be changed forever in a single page. In its own way, the prison library is more dangerous than the big yard.

At the end of the row, in a blind corner, I almost trip over Raven, kneeling between the legs of a pink-skinned guy sprawled across an armchair. I recognize him from group — the Duke — a lightweight with a mullet cut. I want to ask Raven what they did with the Spider Man but I can see she's got her mouth full.

I keep moving. After the reality of catching Raven in honeysuckle heaven I need some other worldly self-help, even poetry. I spend a half hour pouring over books on crystals and angels, guides for the twelve different stairways to heaven, recipes for dharma cookies, and chicken soup for everyone but the chickens. Books to help you recover everything from your inner predator to your authentic self.

On the way to the door I nudge out a slim volume by Rilke. The librarian with a huge frown on her face is staring at a
Maxim
magazine centerfold. “All these faces they've been . . . interfered with. Women, men, even the dogs. They've all been . . . ” She shows me the magazine. Someone has been doing eyeball surgery with a razor blade.

Outside the library I almost bump into Raven again. This time she appears to be on the losing end of a heated exchange with the Duke. Her lower lip is trembling. “Men,” she says before spinning in her elevated loafers and clomping off in her exaggerated way.

“Raven!” I call after her, “What did they do with the Spider Man?”

“He's in the big yard,” she throws back, her ass still chewing bubble gum down the strip.

The Spider Man is lying on his belly in the outfield of the ball diamond, absorbed in a patch of grass six inches from his face. I flop down next to him. An ant teeters by. Eventually I have to ask how he suitcased a spider.

“I cut off a cigar tube and put him inside it. Someone's got to look after the little guys, don't you think? They were going to spray paint my cell when I left.”

“Does he have a name?”

“You mean like a daddy long legs or a wolf spider or what not?”

“No, I mean like Itsy Bitsy or Norman. Like a name.”

Spider Man looks at me as if I'm the one who's nuts. “He's a spider for godsake.” Then he falls quiet for a while before adding, “but I think he's the last Jesus I know of.”

Back on the tier I close my door and go on deadlock, I'd had enough for the day. I try reading Rilke, I pace, I lie down to sleep but there's too much bad mail being opened. Finally, I go to my desk, take a yellow legal pad from my drawer.

I don't try to capital-W Write. I push me out of the way and write from the first realm of thought. The pages begin to fly, the pencil literally pushing through the paper. I seize on to the memory of a time long buried and withheld from grief. All night, black letters pour on to yellow paper and I write out those things no child should ever have been made to know.

When my head comes up, and I set the pencil down, the sun is climbing over the razor wire. I lie on my bunk and watch the shadows of the bars fall across my body, fragmenting my self. I stare up at the ceiling and, like Rilke, let the past break out in my heart.

Monday, back in group, I do a quick survey and count only fifteen heads. Before I can ask who is missing, Morgan throws up his hand and volunteers to present his autobiography. For two hours, in a matter-of-fact tone, he describes never knowing his parents, the brutal foster homes, a runaway adolescence, a skid row adulthood, culminating in this current offence, a triple homicide — the details of which he is told to save for our next — our crime biography — phase.

Next up is a biker named Vance who was raised on the back of a Harley, left on the doorstep of an alcoholic aunt after his Dad met up with a semi pulling out on to a prairie road. He joined a gang at sixteen and at the age of thirty-two has been a full time criminal for more than half his life.

D informs me that evening that the nervous guy with the acne scarred face was caught by The Foote last night — in his cell, wolfing back a bowl full of paper eyes — so they moved him to downstairs.

Over the next few weeks we stay in this same pattern. One person presents their story each day; no one has to be Sigmund Freud to figure out these were men who grew so tired of being wounded, they went out and wounded something else.

My turn to share my scribblings from my own night of the long knives, and I do so in as steady a voice as I can muster. It is the first time I have spoken these things out loud, and it leaves me feeling fragile, less than certain I have done the right thing.

Buster shows up on the last day of the life bios with a page and a half that is as poignant as it is brief. It is the tale of a kid, who at the age of nine, leaves the front gate unlatched and the family dog gets hit by a car. For three days, as a “lesson”, Buster is made to lie in a shallow earthen pit under the house with the body of his pet. With weekends and days off it's taken a month and a half and all I have learned so far is, that for a lot of people in this room, their first bad choice was their parents.

Teal claps his hands, tells us all what a great job we have done. Now it's time to return to our cells and begin our crime biographies.

Morgan is again waiting for me at my cell door, fingering his cross with great distress. He wants to know what he should do, go through the motions or be completely honest. I ask him what Jesus would do and he nods, as if I just gave him sage advice.

I close my door and begin to write about my index offence. I draw the word images for a sea of frightened faces inside the bank, describe the cop chase and the ammunition fired, the commandeering of an elderly couple in their apartment. I write down my crimes as uncut documentary, unadorned by story or convenient amnesia. By the grace of God there were no bodies, only shocked victims, in the wake of my violence.

Then I enter the misery of addiction, the betrayal of self, love, and family. I write on up to the moment of my arrest. I know if I leave one memory unscraped, one regret unacknowledged, then it will simply stay as if it were a recurring stuck dream that goes on delivering its inescapable blows.

We are back in the white room the final morning of our crime biographies. Most of us by now are through presenting. Buster had to default on his because of an alcohol-induced blackout at the time, so we got the antiseptic transcript version of a double attempted murder with a hunting knife. Vance had stumbled his way through a home invasion where he tied a woman to a combination wall safe. D had wept as he recounted killing his best friend with a hammer as the guy slept. When D wiped his tears and thought he was finished, Teal said now tell us why. For a hundred hits of ecstasy and half a pound of weed.

As person after person, day after day, has read aloud, the details have become soul numbing. This is Hollywood unpeeled. Characters who use hammers, kitchen knives, weight bars, baseball bats, tire irons, rocks, and guns. Victims left crawling across linoleum, strangled in duct tape, dragged by the hair into the basement, stuffed in the trunk, or carried, limb by limb, into the woods and burned under a pile of leaves. And just when I think I've heard all I can take, Morgan gets up to read his crime biography.

In a killing spree across northern Alberta, Morgan visits farmhouses the way normal people go to ATMs. They begin as robberies but by the third farm in as many days he shoots a young couple because they resisted. Morgan sets the house on fire unaware two kids are hiding in an upstairs closet. One of them, he learns after his arrest, made it out. But even his arrest doesn't come in time. He's at another farmhouse late the following night and he's got a single occupant on his hands, and she's fighting him hard so he flattens her with a glass ashtray. When he realizes she's probably dead he loads the body in the backseat, drives a few miles down the road, parks, and drags her into a stand of poplars. He goes back to the car for a shovel. Returning, he says, “I can't figure out what came over me, but there she was lying with her dress, like all up around her waist.” Morgan stops, his face flushed and lined in anguish. “Afterward, I dug a hole and pushed her into it. Then I started filling it up and that's when she coughed.” Morgan buried that woman alive. She was seventy-two years old, coughing out that northern Alberta dirt almost as fast as he was throwing it in.

Morgan is the last to present, and when he finishes no one looks at him. Maybe it is the accumulation of all our carnage, maybe it is the fathomless nature of Morgan's crime, but in that moment I think we all know, as the poet said, that there is nothing one man will not do to another.

Later that evening I find Morgan in the chapel, kneeling on a purple carpet beneath a life-sized icon of Jesus. His hands clasped, praying incoherently, he is incapable of even acknowledging my presence.

Not knowing what else to do I simply stay with him. I sit on a pew and witness as a man quakes and heaves his way down to a final and spent madness. Perhaps there are crimes better left covered by the dirt. The buzzer for count sounds. I take my leave, knowing the guards will find him soon enough.

Alyssa awaits the arrival of the whole group before announcing that Teal has a heart condition and will be taking some time off. In two weeks it will be Christmas break so we will resume in the new year.

The last two weeks have been, anyway, strangely anti-climactic. There have been no outbursts, no throwing of chairs, little that is authentic or meaningful, and no breakthroughs.

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