5. Double Shift: A Short Blues Story by Bonni McKeown
During Marcus’s first week in the pen, he wound up in the hole, in solitary confinement. The guy serving soup in the chow line dipped him out only half a bowl and sneered when Marcus asked him to fill it. Marcus hurled his half-filled bowl to the floor. The resounding splatter brought in the guards, swarming like flies.
In the hole, food was more plentiful and worse tasting. It came in gray trays shoved through a slit under the door. Lack of human contact and exercise was the biggest penalty. Solitary inmates were admitted to the yard for one out of every 24 hours, each still confined in a separate 4 by 8 foot cage.
The third day during exercise hour, he heard a roar from the cage to his right. It came from a thick muscled man with gray-flecked dreadlocks.
“Do pushups,” the man said softly and smiled, crazy like a fox. “I roar out here every day, just to hear the sound of my voice. You don’t wanna forget your voice in here.” He bounced to the ground and did 60 pushups.
“What your name is?” Marcus asked. Was the man in his right mind?
”Lambert Sawyer. From Tennessee.” He extended a sleeveless, rock-hard arm through the cage, almost fist-bumping Marcus’s hand. A guard raised a nightstick and offered to rap Lambert’s knuckles. Marcus shuddered and yanked back his own hand. His wrist was still hurting a little.
“They don’t want you to talk much out here,” Lambert chuckled, seeing the guard walk away. “So mostly we just make signs with our hands. And every now and then I’ll roar.”
Marcus asked him the usual question: “How’d you wind up in here?”.
“Double murder. Caught my wife with some sonofabitch. Had my gun, and I used it. Still hate them both, but I shouldn’a taken it on myself to punish ‘em.”
Marcus looked at the ground. His own story seemed mild. “Drug packaging. Just a worker, not a boss, but they threw the book at me. Seven years.”
“You need to talk to Nathaniel Eldridge,” said Lambert. He a lawyer, in here for same as what I did. I bet he can help you get out sooner. Better be ready to study your own case, though. Eldridge don’t play around.”
“Hey Lambert, you act like you know what’s going on around here. How ‘bout schoolin’ me?”
Lambert chuckled and shook his lionlike dreadlocks. “Yep, been here 28 years. Anything goes on in Everley, old Lambert see’d it.”
Marcus dropped to the ground to test his pushup skills. He made 36.
George Blackwell, the prison music room supervisor, sat filling out the forms for his weekly reports. Average daily attendance? He wrote “8”—or part of an 8, as the ink in his ballpoint pen rain out. Reaching in his desk for another pen, he hurled the expired one into his round metal wastebasket. No, wait! Could inmates think to use the barren pen as a weapon? Hastily he retrieved it, disguised it in a tissue from the box on his desk, and placed the wrapped object back in the circular file.
Blackwell’s music room had no windows. Landlocked in the bowels of the prison, it held four sets of drums, two pianos, three bass amplifiers, a gaggle of guitar amps, and assorted horns and fiddles. The concrete block walls and tiled floors reverberated tastefully. But all that echoed right now was his pen, scratching.
Mr. Blackwell sighed. His music room was on probation. If more inmates didn’t show up to play, he’d soon be driving southern Illinois, looking for another job. He knew the warden doubted prisoners could be rehabilitated. Everley’s century-old walls had seen many men come and go. By day they dug potatoes on the prison farm. Each night they would stare out of tiny barred windows at the moon shining on the Mississippi River. Some were buried right there, back on Boot Hill.
“Hey. How you doin’?” Miles Smith appeared in the doorway, interrupting Mr. Blackwell’s mournful numbers. The quiet country inmate with curly brown hair stopped in every day on lunch break from the prison laundry, to hit a few Johnny Cash licks. “Let me at that guitar.”
“There it is,” the teacher said. “Just sitting there waiting for you.”
As Miles got to twanging and wailing about a long black veil, the teacher noticed a new young, black-coffee colored face in his doorway, casting eyes on a gold-trimmed drum set. “I’m Marcus Manning Jr. Got any drumsticks?”
Blackwell unwrapped and handed him a shiny new pair, light wood. As Marcus’s foot tapped the high-hat, he heard Akbar from the spirit world: Reach out, reach out little brother. All power to all people! Don’t just walk the line. Cross the line!
Marcus nodded, very slightly, to Miles, probing for racial attitudes. White musicians, he knew, weren’t fond of heavy bass or rhythm; they leaned toward higher pitches. Marcus began to drum along, searching for the right beat to fit the man who went to the gallows rather than betray his best friend’s wife. He came up with a tiny “ting” on the ride cymbal to keep time, and a bare bop on the bass drum.
A small smile grew on Miles’ face as Marcus kicked in with his rhythm. Mr. Blackwell raised a hopeful eyebrow. He wasn’t sure how to work with Black musicians, but they could sure liven up a place. Maybe this young fellow could help his head count.
On his next trip to the music room, Marcus found Lambert, just released from the hole. He was racking on an electric guitar, growling a Sleepy John Estes song about a bridge that floated in a flood. His loud, scratchy strumming pained Marcus’s ears.
“Mr. Blackwell, can you help tune Lambert’s guitar?” Marcus figured the teacher was too leery of Lambert’s dreadlocked appearance to step in without a request.
“Sure.” Relieved, Blackwell took the guitar and sat down on the piano bench. “First, the low E string, then A, D, G, B and higher E.” He twisted the pegs til each guitar string matched the piano note.
Once Lambert sat back with his newly-tuned instrument, Marcus tried to insert some drum patterns behind him. It didn’t work. Lambert had his own rhythm stuck in his head.
“This is how I heard the old man do in Tennessee. Don’t know no other way to play it.” Lambert strummed like a 1900s country dinosaur, and he knew it. “Tell ya what, Manning. You wanna play in a band? Ask some of them guys in Cellblock D.”
“Like who?” Marcus asked. Mr. Blackwell raised curious eyebrows.
“A guy named Richie, bragging he a singer like Little Richard. Even looks like him with his slick hair. He’s a little this-away.” Lambert rotated his wrist to indicate “queer.”
“Oh yeah. Richie. Ran into him in the chow hall. Told me about my sexy muscles. How he get away with that shit?”
“Everybody know it’s his thing. Got a boyfriend too. Streeter. Short, kinda quiet, and real tough. He got Richie’s back. But they both like music. They work with you if you really wanna get a band together.”
At dinner Marcus recognized Richie and Streeter.
“Well, look what we got here,” Richie teased. “Chocolatey brown, a new kid in town.” He batted his mascaraed eyes at Marcus. “Will you be my honey?”
“Look like you got your honey,” Marcus volleyed back. “But if you wanna pass up a chance to be in my band, we can just keep talking about me being your honey.”
Richie leaned his pompadoured head toward Marcus. “What band? I never heard of no band around here.”
“You ever been in the music room?”
“Aw, I tried going down there. Wasn’t nobody playin’ nothin’ I could sing to.”
“All that done changed now. I’m a professional drummer,” Marcus declared. “Let’s get this thing on.”
“Well, I’ll be a red-nosed reindeer! Let me just get on down to that music room. And if you lyin,’ I’ll get Streeter to beat your tush with the drumsticks!”
“He can even use a cowbell to do it. Or you can beat it yourself! Just don’t get no lipstick on the microphone. Wanna practice? Meet me there at 3. Bring your buddies.”
“You got it, honey.”
Way to go, son, said his dad from the spirit world. You made your claim. Professional drummer.’ Finally--you believe in yourself. Eyes on the prize.