Big Willie Taylor came to my cell one evening after supper with a question. I knew it was a question because he never came to my cell unless he had a question that stumped him. If you knew Big Willie, a massive prisoner with a balding, pumpkin-shaped head, one bloodshot blue eye peering at you, one clear blue glass eye, cocked, staring off in another direction, a red-veined, battered nose, and missing teeth, the epitome of all brawn and little brains, you’d know that most questions befuddled him.
“Norman, you’re purty smart.”
Big Willie always prefaced his questions the same way. I never knew whether it was to build his confidence in my answer, or mine.
“I need to ask you a question.”
Willie seemed more nervous and edgy than usual. I knew it wasn’t because he’d been drinking prison wine or was hung over. We both worked in the laundry, he as a mechanic, while I did paperwork for the boss in the office. Not that he wasn’t prone to being drunk or hung over—I’d seen him comatose after a particularly raucous binge recently, but Big Willie usually reserved Friday nights, all day Saturday and Sunday to get drunk and raise hell. He’d recover in time to be at work early Monday morning, a reliable mechanic who was needed to keep all the washers and dryers operating.
Big Willie continued to fidget, having trouble getting this out.
“What’s the question, Willie?” I didn’t want to be tied up with him very long since I had a letter to finish.
“Can you tell me what’s the definition of a homosexual?”
Oh, boy, I didn’t know where this was going. Big Willie and I were all right, meaning in prison terms we spoke, got along, gave each other mutual respect, but were not buddies, did not hang out with each other, were acquaintances more than friends, did not share interests or confidences. Despite his simple-minded demeanor, Big Willie was a volatile and violent man, quick to anger, especially when drinking. I had to tread lightly, try not to offend him or tick him off, while maintaining my own dignity and self-respect.
“Willie, a person who has sex with another person of the same sex is a homosexual.” I couldn’t make it any simpler than that.
My response troubled him. Apparently, it wasn’t the answer he was seeking. He grimaced before speaking.
“Let me ask you something, hypo—, hypo—, what do you call it?”
“That’s it! This is a hypothetical question, you know what I mean?”
“Go ahead, Willie.”
“Let’s say that two people—one of them is a homosexual and one of them is a man—uh, one of them ain’t a homosexual. One of them does something for the other one, but he don’t do nothing back. What is that?”
“It doesn’t matter, Willie. You know what they say, ‘whether you’re pitching or catching you’re still playing ball.’ If I understand you properly, if one person provides oral sex to another man, by definition they’re both homosexuals.”
If looks could kill, I’d be a dead man. Big Willie’s forehead turned red, he glared at me, then punched himself on the jaw, hard. Better him than me.
“Dammit, I’ve been a queer the whole time and never even knew it!”
He turned, pacing in the small space. He was angry with himself, not me. That was a relief. He stopped, turned back to me, and pointed his finger.
“Don’t you tell nobody about this.”
“Your secret’s safe with me, Willie.”
It is virtually impossible to keep a secret in prison, the proverbial goldfish bowl. Everyone watches everyone else, whether out of self-interest, self-preservation or nosiness, and people figure out relationships quickly. Willie had been seen hovering around a tall, young homosexual named Timmy, who worked in the laundry with his war daddy, or so-called male counterpart lover, Fat Jack. Willie presumably came by their work station at the shirt press to talk with Fat Jack, but would be cutting his one good eye toward the young boy. Everyone knew Big Willie was sweet on the boy. His hypothetical question indicated the relationship had moved beyond the platonic.
If this were true, their relationship would soon become common knowledge, but with Big Willie’s menacing bulk crowding my small cell, it made more sense to reassure him that I would not be the one spreading that revelation across the compound. At this point I wanted only to get him out of my room and on his way as diplomatically as possible. Unfortunately, Big Willie seemed so preoccupied with his unsettling problem that he had no intention of leaving yet. My best strategy appeared to be patience and waiting him out.
Willie continued to pace and chew on his thumbnail. He stopped and leaned in closer to me. He needed to brush his teeth or gargle. I winced at the odor.
“Let me ask you one more of those—what do you call them—hypo—”
“That’s it. I can’t remember them big words. Let’s say somebody wanted to take somebody else’s boy away from him. How would he do it?”
“Willie, you know me. You’re asking the wrong person. I’m not involved in any of that.”
“Yeah, Norman, but you know stuff. I respect your opinion. What should I do? I want that boy. You think I ought to stab Fat Jack, or beat his ass, or what?”
Now, he was putting me in a serious spot. I didn’t want to be responsible for someone’s serious injury over another homosexual.
“Answer me this, Willie. Who does the boy want to be with, you or Fat Jack?”
“He loves me, man, and I think I love him. I’ll kill Fat Jack if I have to.”
“You do that, Willie, you’ll probably never see the boy again.” There had to be a better way.
“Look at you, Willie,” I said. “You must weigh three hundred pounds.”
“Look at your arms.” Willie flexed, looked at his biceps swollen from time spent at the weight pile, as if for the first time, smiling proudly.
“You don’t have to stab or beat up Fat Jack. I’ll bet if you go over there and tell him you’re taking his boy, he’ll be so afraid of you that he’ll let you have him.”
“That’s what I’m gonna do, Norman. Thanks.” Big Willie grasped my hand in both of his huge mitts and shook it gratefully. “You are a true friend, Norman. I owe you. Come on, let’s go over to Fat Jack’s cell right now.”
“Wait a minute! I’m not going over there. This is your deal, not mine.”
“I need you to go with me. You give me confidence. You ain’t gotta do nothing, just back me up.”
Me, backing up a two hundred and ninety pound, one-eyed monster! What was I thinking? Big Willie pulled me to my feet, turned to go. Resigned, I followed.
At that time, the laundry workers lived in Building Ten of the Southwest Unit at Raiford, Union Correctional Institution, Florida’s oldest prison. The Southwest Unit had been built in 1976 during a brief period of prison enlightenment. In contrast to the dreary dungeon-like fortress of The Rock, also called the Main Housing Unit, each two-story building in the air-conditioned Southwest Unit consisted of forty-eight two-man cells built around an open day room. Each of the 1200 prisoners in the complex had his own key to his cell door, providing a modicum of privacy and security unheard of in The Rock. The living conditions were better, but the inhabitants were the same desperate men. Prisoners could sit on folding chairs and watch TV in the day room, or visit anyone else’s room. The guard usually stayed inside a small glassed-in officer’s station by the front door, seldom coming out except to count.
Big Willie and I walked down the stairs from my cell on wing one, crossed the day room, and climbed the stairs to wing three, where Fat Jack and Timmy shared a room.
Fat Jack and Timmy sat on a bunk holding hands, their cell door open. A picture. Big Willie walked in, filling the cell. I stood in the doorway.
“How ya doin,’ Big Willie?” Fat Jack said, surprised at the sudden company. He nodded to me. “Norman.” I nodded back.
“Fat Jack, I’m taking your boy,” Willie stated, forcefully and without preamble. “And you better like it, cuz if you don’t, I’ll fuck you up or stab you, whatever.”
Fat Jack looked stunned. He’d never seen it coming. The husband is always the last one to know. “You—you want my b—b—boy, Big Willie?” Fat Jack stammered. “You ain’t gotta do all that. You can have him. I didn’t like him anyway.”
Timmy, the object of the discussion, looked at Fat Jack with a stung expression, jerked his hand out of Fat Jack’s grasp, and walked over to Big Willie. He was still assigned to the same cell with Fat Jack, and when lights out came in a few hours, he would have to return there or risk going to confinement for violating count procedures.
“And don’t you go messing with the boy when he comes back in here, you got that, Fat Jack?” Big Willie pointed his finger at him for emphasis. “I’ll get him moved tomorrow.”
“He’s all yours, Big Willie. I don’t want nothing to do with him.”
I stepped out of the way as Willie led Timmy down the catwalk to his cell. I gave a weak smile of, “Sorry,” to Fat Jack, but, sitting on the bunk, dejected, he didn’t see me.
Just that easily, with no bloodshed, Fat Jack got divorced, chain gang style, and Big Willie and Tim became mates. Willie had jumped way out of the closet. Nothing good could come of all that, I didn’t think. If Timmy had cheated on Fat Jack, most likely he’d cheat on Big Willie, but somehow I doubted that Willie would deal with infidelity as passively as Fat Jack had.
Charles Norman has been serving LIFE for 1st degree murder in Florida since 1979, a murder he says he did not commit.
Charles Norman #881834