The Softer Side of Suicide
By Johnathan Byrd, Contributing Writer
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I stood staring at Ashes through the rusted metal grill that provides the only way to look into a cell. This unit doesn’t have bars; only solid steel doors. I stared at Ashes with a look of pleased bewilderment on my face. The result of Ashes just informing me that he will sell me one hundred COs for a bag of coffee.
“Fuck yeah man. I got you.” I told him.
Ashes smiled at me through the grill. His few remaining teeth were a yellowish brown combination that only comes from years of drinking too much coffee and smoking contraband cigarettes, along with a complete disregard for any type of personal hygiene. It was this lack of hygiene that had given Ashes his name. When a black person’s skin becomes extremely dry it will Sometimes form white flaky dandruff that looks similar to ashes, hence the term “ashy.” Some black guys in prison see it as a larger personal affront to their dignity to be ashy than it is not to bathe. Some of them will even forego bathing for days at a time in order to avoid becoming “ashy.” The medical staff only reinforces this behavior by telling inmates with dry skin not to bathe everyday since it is cheaper for an inmate not to bathe than it is to prescribe lotion.
Ashes didn’t give a damn about any of that. But then again Ashes was a bit unhinged. I believe if he had committed whatever offence that landed him in prison in a more enlightened state other than Texas, he would have been placed in a mental institution versus serving time on one of the one hundred and some odd prison units scattered all over the Lone Star State.
Ashes lived in a cell by himself instead of with a cell mate. No one would live with him. He smelled atrocious and the state of his cell was animalistic. Unknown filth dominated every inch of the cell with the exception of the steel table which Ashes kept relatively clean for reasons known only to him. His skin was so dry it could be seen flaking off of him like dirty polluted snow. He would break into screaming fits and go off on hours long tangents in gibberish. Despite all of this he was still sometimes lucid enough to sell his medication to incautious dope-fiends such as myself.
I was eighteen months into a life sentence and spent most of my time immersed in a Grendelian fen of self pity. To this day I’m not sure what a COs proper name was or what its true medicinal purpose was. All I knew or cared about then was the calming sense of bliss it provided when crushed into a fine powder and snorted. Though other drugs— free world drugs— could be found on the unit the supply was not steady and I was too new for the dealers to know and trust. Psych dope was far easier to acquire as it was prescribed by the state.
I was ecstatic as I walked up the metal stairs to my cell on two row (i.e. the second floor of the pod). One hundred pills for a dollar ninety bag of coffee! Normally COs went for a quarter apiece. I couldn’t believe my luck.
I went to my cell door and told my cellie to shoot me a bag of coffee. He opened my small locker, retrieved a bag, and threw it under the cell door. I grabbed it and was heading back downstairs when I met a young skinny black guy named Fifth coming up.
Don’t miss Johnathan Byrd’s other story, Learning How to Fight in Juvie
“I need to holler at you Birdman.” he said to me.
I stopped walking. “What’s up man?” I asked. Although I was already pretty sure what he wanted.
Fifth was the one who normally sold Ashes’ pills for him. He would also pimp Ashes out every now and again. Ashes was on some type of medication that would sometimes lay him out for hours. Fifth would charge the truly desperate booty bandits to go into Ashes’ cell and effectively date rape him while he was passed out. The guys who participated in these acts were truly the most depraved and egregious form of sexual predator. They were men doing time for raping children or the elderly. These men should have been executed outside of the courthouse instead of sent to prison only to carry on with their licentious depredations. I never knew if Ashes was aware of what happened to him and sadly I did not care.
I did know that Fifth must have overhead my and Ashes’ deal though.
“You steppin’ on my toes with Ashes. That’s what’s up.” he said.
I smirked. I knew Fifth didn’t want to fight me or anyone else. He was a coward as most cockroach hustlers are.
“What me and Ashes got going on ain’t none of your motherfuckin’ business.” I said.
“Come on Birdman. That’s my homeboy. We out the same hood. You know he throwed! You takin’ food out both our mouths. Me and him.”
“Fifth I don’t give a fuck about any of that shit. Fuck you and him. You don’t give a fuck about any of that homeboy shit. You can run that weak-ass game on somebody else. You should’ve given his crazy ass some motherfuckin’ coffee.”
That was the whole deal between Ashes and Fifth. Fifth sold all the pills Ashes didn’t consume and in return Fifth let Ashes drink all the coffee he wanted. They regularly fought with each other on this issue. Ashes would drink it faster than Fifth could get it.
‘Oh well.’ I thought. Fifth’s loss was my gain.
“That’s how you feel about it?” he said to me.
“Yeah man. That’s how I fuckin’ feel about it. Now get out of my way man ’cause we both know you don’t want no problems.”
He hesitated for a moment then stepped aside. I walked past him, down the stairs and made my way over to Ashes’ cell.
“Ashes, man, I got your coffee.”
He quickly rose from where he had been sitting on his filthy floor. He pressed his face against the grill.
“For real?” he asked. His breath was a putrid cloud of warm repulsion. I leaned in no farther than was necessary to complete our transaction.
“Yeah man. Right here.” I said showing him the bag. “Get my pills man and I’ll slide it under the door.”
He walked to his table and picked up three white paper cone cups that were folded at their tops. He bent down and slid them under the door while I did the same with the coffee.
“Thanks Ashes. Good doing business with you.” I said.
I don’t think he heard me as he had already begun singing some gibberish song of his with the word coffee interspersed now and again.
I left him to it and made my way to a table in the dayroom where four of my homeboys sat playing Forty-two which is the domino version of spades and a honky staple in prison. All; f my homeboys were a cliché of prison white guys; muscles, shaved heads, and heavily tattooed.
“Ooowee! Y’all ain’t gonna believe what a honky done come up on.” I said. “What?” one of them asked.
“I got a hundred COs motherfuckers!”
There were various responses such as “No way” and “No shit?”. After I explained what transpired between me and Ashes we all proceeded to crush up a few COs each and snort them off the dayroom table. We were all feeling pretty mellowed, them playing Forty-two and me standing around watching, trying to pick up the nuances of the game, when I heard arguing over by Ashes’ cell. It wasn’t so much as arguing as it was Fifth bitching at Ashes. There was nothing new in that so I went back to watching the game.
Fifteen minutes later a Hispanic officer came in to do an “in and out”. Officers are supposed to do these every hour allowing us to go into or come out of our cells. If you’re quick you can go in and grab something and come back out. One of my homeboys decided to go in for a while so I took his place at the table, my hoard of COs safely ensconced in my shorts’ pocket.
I noticed that Ashes came out of his cell carrying a large shower bag— occasionally he would shower and wash all of his clothes. He would occupy a shower for hours scrubbing his clothes on the floor and washing the grease out of his matted afro. He headed up to three row. The housing areas on this unit are set up in half hexagons. The showers are in the middle of each of the three rows flanked on each side by four cells. There are two showers per row. Ashes always showered on three row on these rare occurrences. No one knew why.
The officer left and I continued on with the game after doling out a couple more COs. We played for about ten more minutes when the homeboy sitting to my left casually declared. “I do believe that turd is going to hang himself.” I along with the other two players looked up and around.
My eyes landed on Ashes standing in his boxers, dripping wet, tying a bed sheet to the safety rail on three row. These safety rails are nothing more than welded together two inch pipe,,erected about four feet high, spanning the length of the row. Over the years many a’ inmate has gone over that rail and not always of his own accord. The fall being only about twenty feet I’m not sure if anyone has ever died; Accounts vary.
I quickly flicked my eyes over to the control picket to see what the officer stationed there was doing but she was nowhere in sight. She was probably sitting on the floor where guys in the shower couldn’t see her and so wouldn’t jack-off on her.
Casting my eyes back to Ashes I saw he had already tied one end of the sheet to his neck. I’m not sure what type of knot he had made but it wasn’t a noose.
Fifth began running up the stairs just as Ashes finished his work on the rail and stepped over, facing the open day-room area below. All was silent as we watched to see if he would really jump.
We weren’t dissapointed. Ashes stepped off the row into empty space about the time Fifth was halfway up the stairs. A split second into Ashes’s fall I knew the entire day-room population had one single thought. Will he snap his neck or will he strangle? Miraculously neither one happened.
As his body reached that critical point in the fall when the sheet becomes taut, the knot tied to the rail came undone. His fall continued unimpeded until his ass, his literal ass, collided with the rail on two row. The rail halted his progress all too briefly and then he continued down. He somehow managed to land very roughly on all fours and then sort of rolled over onto his back. How the hell he achieved such a feline like feat is only for providence to ascertain.
Though he appeared severely jarred and a bit surprised he displayed no obvious injuries. Two black inmates walked over to him to see if he was alright but he shook them off and stood up. Robbed of our break in the stupefying monotony which constitutes prison life, the other inmates, myself and homeboys included, went back to what we were doing prior to Ashes’s spectacle. Ashes himself walked over to a table and sat down to watch T.V., still wet and with the sheet still tied to his neck. Fifth came down and sat beside him without saying a word.
When the officer came back later for another in and out and saw Ashes sitting there, now dry but with the sheet still attached, he asked a Hispanic inmate what the hell was up with that guy, to which the inmate replied, “I don’t know man. Motherfucker’s crazy.”
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