I’ve always turned to literature as my means of escape, especially in the midst of painful situations and despair. So, it’s only fitting that I would relate most with Virginia Woolf the night I’d find my cellmate lying dead on a cold, urine-stained concrete floor in the prison restroom.
Imagine my confusion as I awoke to the sound of a voice in my ear saying my name repeatedly. My eyes snapped open. My alarm was set for 5 AM, but my watch read: 12:29 glowing brightly in the dark. The man said my name then tugged insistently at my sleeve, so I wearily climbed down from my top bunk. The bed beneath me was empty, the cover neatly folded over in wait of the bed’s occupant to return. My bunky’s locker stood unlocked, and half ajar, the watch we’d earlier replaced the battery in rested atop his nightstand.
The man so rudely interrupting my sleep tugged at me as he started to mutter and blather incoherently, his native Micronesian tongue only making sense when he said the word bunky. He wanted me to come check on my bunky. His eyes implored that I refute that which his mind refused to accept. He led me to the smaller of our wings’ two restrooms where we both could see a man’s arm and the top of his head in the red glow of the security lights mounted above us in the hallway. Where the reddish glow dimmed, I could vaguely detect a purple hue surrounding him as he lay. A riddle I wouldn’t answer until I’d entered the room and had a better look.
Upon entering the restroom, I took in the sight of something puddled beneath the man on the ground, and I desperately wanted to tell myself it wasn’t my bunky, Jerry Callahan, but the pale skin of his wrist where his watch normally was spoke louder than his silence. I spoke his name, “Callahan, bud, are you all right?”
No response. It was now half-past midnight. I flicked the switch and shuddered as light spilled into the room revealing the dark red stain pooled around Callahan’s bald, and rapidly bluing, shiny dome. A stark contrast to the prison’s drab gray floor.
In a trick of the mind, what seemed an infinity of my looking down at his unresponsive form were but scant few seconds. However, for me in that moment, time became an abstraction as I willed the man to breathe, react, twitch, do anything but just lie there.
No man is promised tomorrow; and as I stood apart observing the corrections officers respond to my call for help I couldn’t help pondering that short, pithy expression. The officers’ radios blared against the silence of disbelief as inmates, roused from their slumber, crowded around to face the ultimate phantom fear of imprisonment: dying while in custody.
The nurse’s portable defibrillator and its robotic-voice prompts of “Begin chest compressions now” would haunt all our dreams. The beeping countdown a monotone drone of agony as we all waited to see if Callahan would survive or not.
Forty-two other men witnessed, as I had, oblivion seize and claim one of us as its own in those early hours. The nurse, sweat-drenched and silently exhausted from her ministrations, shook her head and the officers called in their conclusion. All present stood in limbo for the ambulance to arrive.
My mind burned with the image of Callahan’s coldly severe stillness. This was Christmas Eve, 2017. Not a soul in that space felt festive.
Prior to that moment, death was little more to me than a metaphor best left to Virginia Woolf pieces such as her, “The Death of a Moth.” Her moth embodying, “-The enormous energy of the world… thrust into his frail and diminutive form… little or nothing but life.”
Don’t miss Derek Trumbo’s other stories, including: “When Prisoners Become Sex Slaves”
And now death had lain cold, and motionless at my feet.
I’d watched Callahan for that “fluttering” Woolf had so abjectly described in her epic essay of the moth’s plight. None came. “The struggle was over.” As I thought of Woolf’s resolution to her narrative, DEATH took definitive form in my life, its shape not symbolic of a flutter of wings, but by the senseless act of how Callahan was escorted out of the prison and into the next life: secured hand and foot with zip tie flex cuffs and shackles. A prisoner in life, and in death.
Several days later, I wake to the sound of my alarm, 12:30 AM.
The darkness surrounding me every bit as haunting as my memory of those hours just before dawn on Christmas Eve. I lie awake and watch for my very own specter of un-confronted anxiety. Callahan taunts me from the despair of my thoughts, his raspy breathing and un-life all the signal I need to get up from my bunk and follow him. My unresolved issues with death, and Woolf’s inability to deeply enough convey an unknown I’d have to experience for myself, have finally become phantasmagoric enough to bleed over into my waking hours. So I glance at my watch and climb down. My eyes take in the empty space where my bunky once slept, his mat and bed linen, all of his possessions, even his watch with its new battery not nearly enough to buy him more time. My feet retrace his steps as I shuffle along behind him, not stopping once he crosses the threshold. I enter the dark and lie flat out in the very same position he took, face down, in the exact same spot where Callahan spent his final moments. The seconds tick past. My breathing a low flutter of understanding. Tick, tick, tick, tick. I breathe in, exhale. And give thanks.
Death no longer need antagonize my spirit.
After a long shower to wash away the old, I return to my life of sleep and awakenings. As my eyes rapidly close, I speak a silent prayer for the lone moth fluttering at my window.
To contact this author directly, please write to:
Derek Trumbo #201410
Northpoint Training Center
PO Box 479
Burgin, KY 40310