Double Shift, Chapter 4: JAILHOUSE BLUES

4. Double Shift: A Short Blues Story by Bonni McKeown

The paddy wagon rolled up at Twenty-sixth Street and California Avenue—the Cook County Jail, a concrete building topped with cyclone wire, containing several thousand miserable people. A squadron of cops led the handcuffed West Side drug packers from the paddy wagon through the steel gates and down a concrete block labyrinth.  

In a holding cell, the captive crew sat staring at each other, shivering in their underwear, afraid to speak. When morning finally came, they were arraigned before a judge, charged with drug possession with intent to sell. Bond amounts were based on the amount of drugs, or so it was said. Somehow Marcus’s bond was set at three times the twins’ amount. What did it matter— he had no one to bond him out at any price. Dazed, he hung his head as guards took the raggedy crew to another temporary cell. 

Kayford broke the silence among them. “Who squealed?” 

“Bet Debra did it,” said Rayford. 

“Where Lenny at?” Marcus asked.  

A lieutenant in a white shirt headed directly for Marcus and led him to a tiny room with no windows, two chairs and a table.  “Tell me what you know about the Black Panthers.” 

The Panthers? Why wasn’t the detective asking him about the drug house? Marcus stared at the single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling.  “I haven’t seen any of them in awhile.” Uh—wrong answer. He tried again. “I never really knew them anyhow.” 

“So you didn’t really know them, but you knew them a little?” asked the skinny, long-nosed lieutenant, whose badge read Detective White.  He was white, too. White hair and white skin—except for a florid red face, the same color as boss Tryon’s. 

“No sir, I didn’t know them at all.” 

“Well, I think you do. Is this you?”  White pulled out a black and white 8 x 10 photo marked Dec. 4, 1969. It showed a slightly-younger Marcus Jr., holding the door for a line of scowling people waiting to tour the Black Panther murder scene. The Panthers had opened up the house on West Monroe Street a day after the squad of Chicago police had gunned down Mark Clark and Fred Hampton. Marcus would never forget the posters torn off the walls, the 99 bullet holes in the apartment, Fred’s mattress soaked with red blood caked like tomato sauce.    

Hey! Straight from the spirit world, Akbar’s voice burst into Marcus’s head. Shut your mouth. It’s your right to keep silent. 

White demanded: “Is this you?” 

Marcus rubbed his eyes, stared dully at the picture, then at the lightbulb.  His mind was shutting down from fear and lack of sleep. His mouth felt stuffed with cotton, like at the dentist. He could hardly talk, even if he wanted to. 

White unholstered his pistol and began to clean it carefully with his handkerchief. Suddenly he picked up the photo of the Panther crowd again and yelled, “Is this you? Answer me!” 

Marcus searched his mind for Akbar: What do I do? 

“Stop that mumbling. I was gonna give you a chance to go home, but it looks like you ain’t helping me out. Got no choice but to book you on charges of possession and intent to sell. Can get you up to 20 years. Just think about that for a minute.”   

White clamped a shackle on Marcus’s right arm and chained it to a well-worn iron loop in the wall. He left Marcus alone to stare at the locked, barred door.  The unnecessary chain made him feel like a slave.   

That’s the purpose, Akbar advised. 

White returned.  “What you got to tell me, boy?” 

Akbar: Drugs are just a trap for the People. You fell into it. The System will use any of your words against you. Zip your lip.

Marcus shook his head and said nothing. The room was closing in. He didn’t know how to plead the Fifth or ask for a lawyer. 

“Stupid little nigger! “White yelled.  “I’ll make you answer!” Without warning, the cop’s nightstick crashed down on Marcus’s chained right hand.  

Heavy, sick waves of fear.  How many bones were broken? He should’ve gone to the clubs and played drums like his father said. Would he ever get to play again?  

White unchained Marcus’s wrist and cuffed his hands together, sending lightning bolts up his right arm. The young Black man set his teeth, fought back tears and nauseating pain. Two officers paraded him down a long hall to a holding cell much too full of bad and troubled men. Some cast foul glances, as if to blame him for their conditions.  Some stared blankly. Some, with needle marks on their arms, fixed their eyes fearfully at the walls, waiting for the heroin withdrawals to twist their guts. Trying himself not to vomit, he stayed in a corner clutching his throbbing wrist. 

Something began to wind around his injured arm. It didn’t hurt. It felt soft. 

Just let me wrap this for you, little brother.  Akbar!  I found out this revolution is going to take time. I can’t be there to fight it with you. So now I visit to take care of the fighters. 

Marcus felt the invisible thing loop gently around his wrist and hand, finishing off with the fingers. Fred taught me how to do this. He learned it playing football in Maywood, 

Akbar’s mode turned from healer to teacher: Now I want you to take a deep breath. Picture your hand good as new. You’ll write again. You’ll drum again.  You may feel like punching out the pig who did this to you. But hold off on that. Save it for another time. 

Marcus breathed out. He breathed in. His arm felt light and warm. His mind opened up to shine light on his mistake. “I shouldna gone to that drug house.” 

Do you understand, within yourself, why you did that? 

“Money. I got worried. I got impatient. My mom and dad told me not to, but I told myself I needed the money.” 

Would you do the same thing again, for money? 

“No. I have to look for other ways to make money. This way’s too much trouble.” 

Ah. You did learn a lesson. Some never learn. 

So how do I stay out of trouble?” 

Treat people as you’d want them treating you. We all part of the People. Get quiet. Listen. Breathe!  The Higher Power will bring you the answers. Really, that’s how it works.  

Marcus found his next home in a jail cell. Bars, scratchy blanket, steel shelf for a bed.  As days went by, he read books and tried to keep to himself. He flexed his fingers, tested his wrist til he could stack dishes in the kitchen and fold clothes at the jail laundry. He learned to play ping pong with either hand. He disregarded endless baloney sandwiches, scuttering roaches, and disputes over what TV shows to watch in the dayroom.  

He kept asking about a public defender and a trial. One day they told him he’d been indicted by a secret grand jury. All the drug packers were sentenced to prisons near Chicago to serve three years—except for Lenny, who somehow got probation.  At Marcus’s trial, his public defender said he was lucky to get only seven years in prison—700 miles downstate. 


The inmate transfer bus left the County at 5 p.m. City lights graded down to scattered flickers in suburban houses, then towering farm silos, then dark wooded hills of southern Illinois. The converted school bus hit every dip, every bump in the road. The dozen prisoners would’ve bounced up to the ceiling if not weighed down by the shackles and chains around their ankles. They could just barely hop on and off the bus to pee, twice, in the roadside bushes, under the watch of gun-toting guards.  

At sunrise they crossed the Mississippi River, passed through a tiny town, and out into the country. The bus pulled into a dusty parking lot in front of a century-old castle. Guard towers, each with a round witch-hat roof, loomed on all four corners.  Tufts of grass persisted in the yard amid the caked dirt. Sunlight glared from the gleaming, razor-sharp circles of cyclone wire atop drab concrete walls.  A sign read: “Everley Penitentiary.” 

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