The Writing Disorder



New Nonfiction


by Joseph Smith

      In 1972, The Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman was a slave labor camp in transition. Located in the Mississippi Delta, Parchman made up the third leg of an unholy triad of southern prison farms, the other two being Cummings in Arkansas and the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. A cruel legacy of old bones and shallow graves.
      Parchman consisted of a dozen camps scattered over 12,000 acres of flat, bottom-land and buckshot mud. Festering in the sun of Mississippi’s Yazoo Delta, Parchman was regarded by Pulitzer Prize-winning editor Hodding Carter as a mirror image of all that was wrong in Mississippi. Parchman’s notoriety spread beyond Mississippi’s borders through the works of writers like William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, it’s legend firmly rooted in the blues of Bukka White, Son House, Leadbelly, and a fellow by the name of McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters.
      In 1972 the United States Court for the Northern District of Mississippi in Gates v. Collier, held the state of Mississippi in violation of the First, Eight, and Fourteenth Amendments. Those findings preceded orders for both immediate and long-term relief, thereby rendering it unconstitutional to beat a man with a leather strap, or work him in the fields without pay. It also abolished the “trusty shooter” system which allowed armed convicts to guard other prisoners. In addition, the court held it to be cruel and unusual punishment for the state to kill a man, declaring a moratorium on the death penalty and closing Parchman’s gas chamber. In the midst of this chaotic milieu, I began serving a seven year sentence for possession of marijuana with intent to deliver; twenty pounds, prime bud.
      Camp 9 had been at Parchman since the early 1900’s. It was a squat, concrete and brick relic perched in the middle of what once had been a cotton field. Unlike the other line camps, which had a north cage and a south cage each holding a hundred men, respectively, Camp 9 only had one cage and it was crammed past capacity. It functioned as an induction center. Forty days lock down, then ship out to the line. Double bunks bordered the walls, pushed within a few feet of one another. In the vast middle ground were single cots, men shoulder to shoulder, jammed together like logs. I was lucky, I had the high ground, top bunk, next to the wall.
      The cage was filled with men of all ages. Young and black being the most prevalent. We stayed inside on lockdown 24 hours a day. Wasn’t much to do other than swap tales and get acquainted. In our naivete’ we freely shared information about our convictions, but once we hit the line camps we would learn this was a strict violation of prison etiquette. You could ask a man how much time he was doing, that was expected, but never ask about the crime that led to it. Matter of fact, the less you knew, the better off you were. Know too much and you become a threat, a liability. Bottom line, you might not want to know the particulars of what a man did to get a triple life sentence plus fifty years. One of the first people I met at Camp 9 was an older man, late fifties I’d say. He was from Chicago, had done time in Joliet and was doing a life sentence at Parchman for murder. He had been a hit man for hire. Made a damn good living at it too, he said. New house, new car. Seems there was a period of time in the mid sixties when his profession was in demand. He had a partner working with him for a while, an ex-Viet Nam vet. Had to get rid of his ass though, got too creepy. “We used to sit in a bar at night,” he said. “And he’d be like, man, we got to get some more hits, we gota’ kill some more of ‘em. Bastard would start drooling, breathing heavy, slobbering. I said, to hell with this shit, I’m better off alone.”
      He told me about one hit in particular that he seemed especially proud of. There was a dude who ran a bar, sold dope and ran whores out of it. Evidently he got crossways of somebody in the Game and they contracted the hit. So my guy shows up early on a Sunday morning. He’s in a stand of trees behind the business. The bar is upstairs and there is a connecting porch with a low railing that runs from the metal door of the bar over to an apartment where some of the girls live. The porch is about ten feet off the ground, but there is a strong, metal drain pipe running down the outside wall, near the bar room door. While he’s waiting, one of the girls comes out of the bar and walks over to the apartment. As soon as she goes inside, he sprints to the drain pipe, shinnies up and vaults over the banister. And then with a stroke of creative genius, he taps the metal door with the back of his fingers; a sound like an afterthought, something a woman might do who had forgotten something. He heard the lock turn and the guy opened up. He pushed him back inside and after a short scuffle, shot him three times. “When they realize you’ve come to take a life,” he said. “they get real strong.” Clear, concise, professional.
      And then you had the haphazard. Like Lips, who broke into a bar and robbed the “Seeburg” as he called it. The jukebox. Problem was he was high on Seconal when he did it and passed out. They found him the next morning asleep, head cradled on a bag of change and a pocket full of red devils spilling out onto the floor. Then there was Little Black. Drunk, he broke into a store to plunder the cash box. The store had a monkey in it. Little Black got sidetracked playing with the monkey, the police drove by, saw the forced entry and busted him. Five years, B&E. And the list went on and on. But one guy stood out in my mind, Delbert Wayne Collins.
      Delbert Wayne was a young guy, early twenties, from Waynesboro, Mississippi. Waynesboro is in an area of south Mississippi with a reputation for outlaws dating back to the civil war. Wayne county, and it’s culturally conjoined twin, the neighboring Jones County, had existed together since statehood. Jones county was the home of Capt. Newton Knight, leader of a notorious band of southern deserters, including the anti-confederate four Collins brothers, who along with Capt. Knight, made an unsuccessful attempt to secede from the Confederacy and establish the Free State of Jones. Apparently, they found the CSA’s politics a bit too restrictive, especially Capt. Knight; since much of the controversy surrounding him, within his family and locally, was generated by his living openly with his black slave common-law wife, Rachel. They didn’t like it, he didn’t care. This was the tradition that Delbert Wayne Collins grew up in. Veneratio Supremus Totus. Honor Above All. Without that, without respect, he had nothing, was nothing. He would not be disrespected. At Camp 9 he walked with a swagger. He was doing 20 years for manslaughter and seemed right proud of it. This is how it happened.
      Delbert Wayne was at a chicken joint one night with several friends. “He was known to carry a gun,” he told me. Delbert Wayne and his friends weren’t the only ones in the joint that night. A few tables away a group of white, redneck, peckerwood pulpwood haulers were having a little chicken and fun too, mostly at Delbert Wayne’s expense. I’d heard the comments before: “What is that, a boy or a girl?” “That’s a wooley-booger over there ain’t it?” “You reckon he’d suck a dick?” To Delbert Wayne’s credit he pretty much ignored them. Until his chicken came. At that point Delbert Wayne went to the counter, got his order and went back to the table with his friends. As he sat down, one of the pulpwood haulers got up and went over to the table and snatched Delbert Wayne’s box of chicken and told him to “get the goddamn hell out of there.” Delbert Wayne shot him point blank right between the eyes. And that, more or less, was that. Throughout the next year I didn’t see Delbert Wayne very much. I had begun the downward spiral that would take me through the bowels of that shithole to within spitting distance of the now defunct gas chamber. I was assigned to Camp 1 and Dellbert Wayne, carrying some fairly serious time, went to work at the hospital.
      Now the ‘Pital, as it was known colloquially, was to medicine what the appendix is to the human body: Nonfunctional, worthless and potentially dangerous. Sick call was once a week. If you needed to go any other time you must (A) have stopped breathing or (B) be bleeding externally, or both, no exceptions. On regular sick call you had to get up before daylight and catch a broken down school bus with flat iron bars welded over the windows, take a twenty minute ride over rough-assed gravel roads and wait an indeterminable amount of time in a smoke choked room about a hundred feet long and not much wider than a travel trailer. About the only reason to go over there was to hook up with someone from another camp, do a dope deal or just shoot the shit. If you actually had something wrong with you it had better fall somewhere within the three or four medicines that they gave out. Benadryl was their big thing, another was some sort of yellow and white tablet, don’t have any idea what it was for. I know some of the guys were splitting it apart and shooting the yellow half. Now, if you were looking for something for pain, you’d be shit out of luck. They don’t do pain relief. I had my front teeth damn near knocked out in a fight, bottom lip flapping in the breeze like a blown-out sail and the doctor who sewed it up was so mad he’d been woken up at four o’clock in the morning, that with every stitch he made he damn near jerked me out of the chair as he cinched it up, without a drop of novocain. I saw one guy get his head split open with an iron bedrail and he got nothing for pain. They gave his friend, who had his knee cap shattered in the same attack, a Darvocett. They were reluctant to give him that. So, if you’re going to the ‘Pital you damn sure better have a good reason. Even if you survive the trip and the waiting room, you’re still going to have to deal with Julio.
      Julio was the doctor. Doctor Julio. I don’t know where Julio came from, I only know he spoke very little english. He had a fat assed wife, a white woman, who sat beside him as interpreter. Julio also had a horseshoe shaped scar on the side of his head. I don’t know how he got that. Hadn’t seen one like it since a guy I knew in high school called Willy Lump-Lump got kicked in the head by a mule. I have to admit, the scar was a bit disconserting. Made one a little apprehensive about what might have been gouged out of Julio’s brain prior to his coming to Parchman. Fortunately I only had to stand before Julio once. The way sick call worked was a long, single file line of convicts snaked through the ‘Pital leading to a table where Julio and his fat assed wife sat. When your turn came, you’d tell Julio what was wrong with you, his wife would interpret, then Julio would answer in heavily accented Spanglish. My problem, the day I caught the bus, was the result of one of Parchman’s infamous conjugal visits. Parchman was one of the few, if not the only prison, that allowed you to get laid on visitors day. On the surface it seemed quite innovative, but the underling reason, like most things in pre-civil rights Mississippi, had deep racial overtones. To quote an anonymous old timer interviewed in William Banks Taylor’s, Down On Parchman Farm: “Hell, nobody knows when it started. It just started. You gotta understand, back in them days niggers were pretty simple creatures, give a nigger some pork, some greens, some cornbread and some poontang ever now and then, he would work for you. And workin’ was what it was all about back then. I never saw it, but I heard tell of truck-loads of whores bein’ brought up from Cleveland (MS) at dusk. The cons who had a good day got to get ‘em some right there between the rows. In my day we got civilized-put ‘em in little houses and told everybody that them whores was wives. That kept the Baptist off our backs.” Later on the conjugal privilege applied only to married folks, Mississippi being steeped in Christian principles and all, and the concept of the “Red House” was born. But over the years, things got lax and sooner or later we all got in on it. We didn’t have a Red House at Camp 1, some gal-boy burned it down. Got jealous when his man used it on visiting day, put an end to that. Instead, the cage was opened to visitors. The double-bunks along the wall formed cubicles that were “tunked” in for privacy. Blankets hung around the perimeters and over the top to form tents, a cross between tent and bunk, a Tunk. We lived like this on a daily basis, four to six men per cubical depending on the size of your real estate holding, only adding the tent top on visiting day. The cage would be teeming with well over a hundred people. The cage “businesses” would be going full force, selling sandwiches, coffee, snacks, what have you. Some enterprising free world gals worked their “bidness” too, or as my friend Big Man pointed out, “Them bitches be selling pussy out of both drawer legs.” There was plenty of music, lots of laughter. The smooth sounds of Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder blended with the sweet smell of ganja in the air. A bizarre, black carnival; a fleeting moment of truce, in hard time Mississippi.
      After the visit I was left with an irritation that was persistent enough to go see Julio. So I caught the long line, the line snaking through the ‘Pital leading to Julio, the desk, and his fat assed wife. When it came my turn I told Julio I had a rash. He said, “let me see.” Julio made a tch…tch…tch sound with his tongue and said, “No, no, no. Yew doan have rash,” he said. “We doan have rash at Parchman. You gota’ deeescharge.” He turned to the wife and said, “Masaje de la prostata.” I caught the Ta-Ta part but the rest escaped me. I looked at the wife. “Prostate massage,” she said, ripping a work order from her pad. “Third door down the hall, see the inmate intern.” I knew one thing for sure, no convict was going to stick his finger up my ass. However, I had to at least drop the order off, refuse the service, hit the road, otherwise, when they tallied up at the end of the day my order would be missing and some motherfucker would want to know why.
       So I went down the hall, turned at the third door and came face to face with Delbert Wayne Collins. “Hey, dude, how the hell you doing,” he said, hand outstretched, big smile. “Aw, man, same old shit. Just trying to make it.” We talked for a while about the days back at Camp 9, asked after a few people. I noticed a subtle change in Delbert Wayne. The swagger was gone, the bravado. He seemed like a man who had done a lot of thinking since I last saw him. Like a young man struggling to wrap his mind around a twenty year prison sentence. “So what you doing here?” he asked. I showed him the prostate order. “Juilo’s dick musta’ got hard or something,” I said. He shook his head and put the order in a loose leaf binder. “Don’t worry about it man, I’ll take care of it.” “It’s good to see you, Wayne,” I said. “Been wondering about you. Knew you were over here. Little David and Gunsmoke told me they had run into you. But I just don’t get over this way much.” “Don’t blame you for that,” he said. “Where you at now?” “Over at Camp 1,” I said, “Been there for about three months.” “How is it?” he asked? “Wide open,” I said. “If it got any better I couldn’t stand it.” “Yeah, right,” he said, putting the work order binder on a shelf. It would be a long time before I saw Delbert Wayne again. Time measured not in hours and minutes, but time in months and seasons.
      “Look out on Joe Smith!” “Look out on Joe Smith!” The trusty shouted my name. This meant to come to the bars of the cage and “look out.” Meant I had a message. “So what’s up,” I asked. “Grab your cup and your spoon, you going to the moon,” he said. The general consensus being, that anytime you were leaving where you were you probably wouldn’t be going anywhere better, hence the reference to the moon; bleak, barren. This time they were wrong. I was going home. I had been approved for parole three weeks earlier. Since then I’d been walking the short timer’s walk, playing it close to my chest, fearful that I might attract unwanted attention that could queer the deal. You had people in there who would fuck you up just to see you fail. By now I was weary of this place. Relentless, constant pressure, never a break. The camps were ghettos that never shut down. Blaring music, fights, challenges, “Who you looking at?” “Somebody paying you to watch me?” For twenty-four hours a day, it never stopped. Now I was going back to the free world: The Big Rock Candy Mountain.
      Before they cut you loose at Parchman, you go to a little “show” camp up near the front, right next to the hospital, for thirty days. Up every morning, make your bunk, military style, wax and buff the linoleum, then sit in the dayroom, watch t.v., or just sit. I don’t know what the purpose for all this was, you just did it. You were going home, nothing else mattered. One thing I do know is they used this camp for propaganda. When visiting dignitaries, state senators, representatives or anybody else with a political agenda came by to see for themselves how the prison was run, they brought them to this place. They were told the prison couldn’t guarantee their safety back in the line camps, but this was an example of what they would see if they went back there. Then the politicians would go back to their home districts and run on a platform vowing to do away with the “Country Club conditions at Parchman.” It was enough to make you puke.
      During this thirty day period you made a quick run through the ‘Pital, signed a few papers absolving the penitentiary of anything and everything and then you were pretty much free to sit around out side until late afternoon when they rapped the iron. The “iron” was a four foot piece of railroad steel hung by a chain and beaten with an iron bar, the signal for lockdown. It was during this time, late September, I saw Delbert Wayne Collins again.
      It was probably four-thirty or five in the afternoon. The sun fairly low in the sky, but there was still plenty of daylight left. And it was hot, field hand hot, share cropping, burn a man down hot. Shimmering, vaporous heat monkeys danced on distant air, a stunted oak tree the only shade. It was in this meager comfort, as I lay thinking of home, dreaming of things not yet lived, that I heard a familiar voice. “Damn, dude, looks like you done took over!” I raised up, shielded my eyes and saw Delbert Wayne Collins walk in from the sun.
      “Well, son-of-a-gun,” I said, genuinely glad to see him. “Pull up a piece of state dirt and sit down brother.” We sat there for a while doing what convicts do. Talk, reminisce, fantasize and dream. “What ever happened to old so and so? Damned if I know. Somebody said he got out," type thing. After a while the small talk trailed off. “Damn, man, you going home?” he asked. “Yep, Fixing to shut ‘er down,“ I said. “Heading home, brother. Don’t ever want to see this place again.” “I know that’s right," he said, “lord have mercy.” I felt sorry for Delbert Wayne at that moment, slightly embarrassed by my own good fortune. About that time somebody began to rap the iron, the sound loud, demanding, insistent. We both stood up, dusted ourselves off and shook hands. Delbert Wayne took a deep breath, stared at the distant shadows on that 20 year horizon. “Man,” he said, “I wish I’d let that son-of-a-bitch have that chicken.” He looked me in the eyes, the stench of that truth hung in the air between us. There was nothing I could do. Lives squandered, too late for regrets. I shook my head and walked away, the sound of iron on steel ricocheting through my brain.

Joseph Smith earned his B.A. in Creative Writing at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL. He is a welder by trade.

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