Prison Writer Derek TrumboThe man’s kissing a skunk…in a photograph, that landed him in the hole for ninety days. The photo was used as evidence to convict him of the write-up. To him, the conviction and subsequent hole-time were worth it. He got the picture he wanted and the staff had to let him have it because he paid for it.

Missile, the man with the painted face. The Saint Francis of Kentucky’s prison system. The dirty old white boy from Louisville. I’d heard him called all of the above and then some when I first arrived at the assessment center. I was new to the ins and outs: a fish, fresh meat, and secretly listening to every snatch of conversation within earshot in the hopes of better preparing myself for what I was facing. Imagine my surprise when I personally came face to face with what at first appeared to be a Maori tribesman glaring at me like I was the main course on his cannibalistic diet. The man extended a hand covered in tattoos: a pair of lips on the palm of his right hand and , a hundred dollar bill tatted on the left. Yes, the man had etched every inch that he could reach, including a set of blue eyes on a certain part of his anatomy that found itself exposed to any one that said they were a Sinatra fan, and some who weren’t.

I glanced up nervously at the men who came to visit my bunkie, Missile. The one proudly wearing Hitler in full salute with the words “Seig Heil!” tattooed beneath on his bicep stared at me while motioning for me to leave my own bed area. Knowing that I was both a “fish” and black, I stood up. Not to leave, but to stand my ground. It’s bad enough being the “new guy” in a system filled with people who frown upon those they don’t know, but being marked as a coward scars more deeply than any other ass kicking ever could. The man with the tattoo of Thor’s hammer set prominently etched upon his forehead looked to my bunkie, even as Hitler’s biggest fan began to puff his chest out. The sounds of knuckles being cracked and shoes squeaking as our neighbors cleared out to avoid being part of what was sure to come next did little to drown out the voice in my head that screamed, “This Is Real!” My bunkie, the man whose entire face, neck, and every other exposed inch of his body was covered in hateful, angry images of permanence- smiled as he told his company to, “leave the colored kid alone. He’s got heart.” The visit ended as quickly as it began. The first of many tests had transpired, and I learned to look intently and deeply at not only my surroundings, but the people as well. I turned to offer Missile my gratitude, but instead found myself staring into the bold, blue eyes of a predator. The smile was gone. He smacked my extended hand away. “You don’t thank someone you don’t know. You don’t bite off more than you can chew. And you don’t shit where you live.”

I went to sleep that night thinking about the saying, “Still waters run deep.” And how when I’d first laid eyes on the man I’d soon come to find myself calling a friend, my first thought had only been about what I saw on the surface. The next morning I woke up to find a cup of coffee and a honey bun on my nightstand. My bunkie cast a wary eye in my direction as I left it all untouched. His laughter followed me long after the smile on his face faded. Disaster averted. I made a mental  note to keep my eyes open at all times and to always look the man in his eyes, because the surface of things are often deceiving.

Over the years, I learned that the man was a walking enigma, a virtuoso on the guitar, an artist with a homemade tattoo gun, and a lover of animals. To know the man was a practice in patience, not just because of the sight of him and the swirling, whirling, patterns, horns, and symbolism that hid the person behind all the link; but the knowledge that what you saw wasn’t who he was. In prison, you hear people constantly say that they are/have changed. Missile was the first to tell me that the only thing a man can truly change about himself was his  own mind. Each drop of ink was deliberate. The pain and frustration of a caged soul manifested into a visual presentation for all to see. The surface of a calm pond often hides unfathomable depths. We laughed together when the parole board informed him that the only way he’d make parole would be if he had his tattoos removed, and cried when he found out that he was being transferred from his friends and his family of skunks.

After ten years in prison myself, I often glance into the mirror and wonder what happened to the bright-eyed young man I first walked in as. Then I remember Missile and the explanation he gave me all those years ago when I asked him, “Why?” He told me that by wearing all his ugly on the outside, it made room for new experiences inside. A few months ago, I heard that he’d finally made parole. He still had his tattoos. I can’t help but be grateful that someone finally looked as deeply at him as I did.