The Matter with Gregory by Terrance Robinson

Prison 101: Never get attached.

That singular rule is the insulation that keeps inmates from over-investing in emotions. The notion of friends in prison is an invariable sign of weakness. It’s fine to have “homies,” “boyz,” “dogs,” and “baby mamas,” as such classifications depersonalize emotional involvement and protect vulnerability. “That’s my dog” is far more acceptable than “That’s my friend.”

If only I had followed that simple principle, the counselor’s words wouldn’t be coming at me like fist jabs and aluminum bats and steel pipes. I wouldn’t be standing at her office door trying to maintain a stoic mask as tears—actual tears—threaten to betray me.

“But, you said—”

“I know what I said.” The counselor looks like she’s on the tail end of a three-day IV-driven binge of vodka and bourbon. “Now I’m saying Hayes isn’t coming back.”

“So, what about this Gregory Bainks guy? I never requested him as a cellmate.”

Heavy sigh. “I know that. But if I’m moving anyone it’ll be you, because that’s a handicapped cell, and Bainks is handicapped.”

“Since when?” I try to fight the outrage welling up in my voice. “In all these years, Bainks has never needed a handicapped cell. He uses a walker but gets around just fine. Why now?”

The counselor flashes cold, red-rimmed eyes. “Look! If you want to move cells I’ll move you. But Elias Hayes isn’t coming back!”

An inmate in a frayed baseball cap, taking advantage of my momentary paralysis, presses past me waving sheets of paper at the counselor like peace offerings; he proceeds to discuss signatures and account balances with her. I’m too stunned to even launch a protest at his rudeness.

I retreat on legs that feel like a pair of sandbags, shuffling through the unit, hollowed and disembodied. It’s as if I’ve just been hit with something blunt and unforgiving. Throughout the unit, inmates play dominos and poker at tables designed for chess and checkers. They lounge in plastic chairs in front of seven TVs descending from a ceiling coated with foam insulation (it sheds every so often, sending down large motes like snowflakes). Others linger over computer stations, emailing, checking electronic bulletins, sampling music for their MP3 players. The usual smattering of inmates speaks quietly into telephones, hunched over as if in a rainstorm. The din on the unit is deafening but I barely hear it.

I don’t even know how and when I got back to my cell. It doesn’t matter. I sit in a chair staring absently at the small fractures in the concrete floor. The deep ache of Elias’ absence pushes at me from the inside out like something alive and willful.

I retrace the last month and a half. That’s when they moved Elias to the Special Housing Unit (SHU) after he tested positive for phenobarbital, an anti-seizure drug. Seventy-two years old and wheelchair-bound, Elias was prescribed a myriad of medications for a multitude of health issues, including morphine and oxycodone, the holy grail of medications that most inmates would gladly sell their organs for. Everyone, staff and inmates alike, knew there was a mix-up, but the wheels of prison justice had to spin, and poor Elias experienced the SHU for the first time in all of his eight years behind bars. Eight days later, he was cleared of any wrongdoing (medical staff had made a change to his medications without noting it in his records) and was scheduled for release back to the unit.

But then Gregory Bainks happened.

As if summoned, Gregory slithers into the cell, pushing a groaning walker, putting on airs to the best of his feeble ability. He groans with each step, as if the very act of breathing was cumbersome and unpleasant. He favors his left leg, limping dramatic enough to win awards; he’s forgotten that moments earlier it was his right leg he was favoring. I scowl, like I’m in the presence of something foul and unholy. Handicapped indeed! The counselor has never seen him racing across the compound to get a typewriter at the library or leading the way to mainline every day. And God help anyone who gets in his way during the commissary move; he’d run them over and only look back to make sure he didn’t drop anything important.

The counselor is usually very good about making sure both parties agree to move into a cell together, but not in Gregory’s case. When Elias went to the SHU, she assured me he’d be coming back. “It’s only a dumb-ass shot,” she’d said. “He shouldn’t be back there anyway.” I had no reason to disbelieve her. But when they moved Gregory into my cell only a couple of days later, I was livid. Supposedly it was temporary. But temporary is over a month old now. With no other place to go after his release from the SHU, Elias was placed in the medical unit on the Northside.

I don’t blame the counselor for all of it. Gregory Bainks is a snake through and through. A few years younger than Elias, he’s a jailhouse lawyer in all of his sleaziness. Always threatening some sort of legal recourse against staff and the institution, citing program statements and procedures like mantras. More ego than intelligence, he possesses the calculating instinct of a cat when it comes to self-preservation and getting what he wants. He’s a scoundrel pure and simple. Unpopular. Unliked. Unscrupulous. And now I’m stuck with him.

More likely than not, Gregory had the counselor in some legal chokehold until she collapsed under the weight of bureaucracy and conceded to his demands, effectively screwing Elias out of the cell he’d been assigned to for over three years.

The medical unit Elias is housed in now is only a few yards across the compound, but it might as well be along some back road in China. Sometimes, standing at the big window at the end of the unit, I can see Elias wheeling himself around. And it makes me hate Gregory even more. Elias’ new cell isn’t wheelchair-accessible, so he doesn’t have safety railings or enough floor space around the stainless toilet. “I’m fallin all over the place,” he’d complained, his Alabamian accent thick with frustration. “I got nothin to hold on to anymore. And I can’t get my wheelchair past the bunks to get to my locker!”

Poor Elias. He used to tell me stories of his trucking and sailing and early Navy years with the flamboyant flare of a conjurer, his withered and trembling hands directing the plots. Sometimes I got bored, but I listened anyway, and asked questions to keep engaged. It’s not my MO to entertain the shallowness of others, but when it comes to Elias, I seem to have a childish devotion. At first, I was just his caretaker, an inmate medical companion responsible for getting him to his appointments and mainline. And then I started adding trips to the library so he could refresh his westerns, doing his laundry, cleaning the cell, getting his ice and hot water. Thankfully, Elias didn’t require diaper services.

I spent most of my time with Elias, and I’d actually become accustomed to the domesticity—in a good way. It’s strange how a portly black guy in his late 30s and a white-haired caucasian in a wheelchair could move so comfortably around one another. After hours of quiet conversations and shared space, we knew each other’s mannerisms and routines and moods. Hell, I even knew Elias’ pain threshold.

Figuring out where and how to meet up is a major pain for Elias because he hates asking someone else to push his chair. But I think it’s worth it, judging by the way his face changes as soon as he sees me. It’s a big deal for both of us, like a reunion. I ask how he’s doing and listen like I did before but closer now. When I tell him how much I miss him he calls me a sissy, but he’s always smiling behind those bright and alert hazel eyes. He feigns annoyance when I clear crumbs from the corners of his mouth, tidy up a curled collar, tame a wild hair. But then he points out splotches of black and blue and crimson beneath the translucent skin on his arms and legs. He wears the wasted look of something hunted as he asks if the counselor’s said anything about moving him back to his old cell. It kills me to have to tell him no, how she’s still promising that this is all temporary. He nods sadly. And then it’s on to recycled tales of trucking and sailing, but they don’t bore me this time. When we need to go back to our cells, I risk an out-of-bounds infraction to wheel him to his unit. Saying goodbye is like ripping away scabs. Every week for the last three months.

The clincher came one day last week when Elias gripped my hand hard, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “Boy, I really do miss you. I really do.” I nearly choked because I knew he meant it. That was probably when I realized just how much we needed each another.

My parasitic cellmate interrupts my reflections with Goddamit this! Goddamit that! as he searches for something in his locker. He drops a box of sweeteners and goes at it again. He grunts while getting to his knees to collect the fallen packets and it reminds me of the bruises on Elias’ arms and the too-small cell he’s forced to live in now. There are wheelchair-accessible cells all over the compound; very few inmates have a real need for them, but we all want one to feel less like caged hounds. And the extra space is considered status.

Living with Gregory is like a cancer diagnosis. What did I say that gave him the opening he needed to commit this slow-motion execution? He’s started shifting my stuff around, leaving empty wrappers laying round the cell, letting half-eaten bowls of food sit, abandoning used cotton swabs on the sink. One night he even woke me up beating on the bunk and yelling that I was snoring.

“Don’t get too comfortable” is what I told him the day he moved in. He was sitting on his walker pasting homemade shelves onto his locker door.

“Oh, I’m gonna get plenty comfortable,” he replied, not even looking back.

“This is temporary. Until Elias gets out of the SHU.”

“Not anymore.” I can still hear the conceited confidence.

That was when I should have laid into him. Just beat the piss out of him. But I fought the killing urge because I thought it would risk Elias coming back. That hope is buried today.

Gregory slithers past me and out of the cell, leaving behind the aura of a corpse. I know I have to get over this and make peace with the situation. It’s prison after all, a revolving door of cellies coming and going for SHU, transfers, incompatibilities, boredom, death. And this isn’t the first wretched cellmate I’ve had to deal with. My conscience nags me the way my mother used to about eating too many sweets: Be stronger than anything this place can throw at you. I recite her favorite clichés about letting go and letting God, being granted the wisdom to know what you can and can’t change, forgiving and forgetting, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I want to move forward, but pain and animosity have too strong of a grip on me. The ache in my chest leaves me desiccated.

Hayes isn’t coming back.

I feel like such a sucker! How could I not see how Bainks played everyone in his path? He’s robbed me of my friend, my job, and now my cell. Probably the most damage is that strangely beautiful sense of purpose has become a maw of black hopelessness.

Looking back, I can see it like pieces of a puzzle merging into obvious patterns. First there were Gregory’s lame jokes to get me to believe he’s a nice guy. “If you can’t get along with me you can’t get along with anyone,” he’d say. Then there were the subtle comments to Elias about how nice it would be to have a “nice big cell,” followed by inquiries to Elias about how much time he had left on his sentence, whether or not he was eligible for transfer, if he wanted legal help with his compassionate release paperwork. “I’d do it for you at no charge.”

But the biggest red flag? Just two days before Elias was scheduled to get out of the SHU, Gregory had met secretly with the counselor and the unit officer. (I thought he was in trouble at the time.) The next day, Gregory Bainks slipped into my life like a rapist through an unlocked door.

The grief is nearly suicidal. Sometimes I can barely look Elias in the eyes because of the guilt.

It’s only fair to take something from Gregory. To make him suffer. Terribly. Maybe then peace will come. To set him up with a knife, as easy as that would be, isn’t punishment enough. No, there has to be more to find closure; I won’t be satisfied until Gregory is destroyed beyond recognition.

The thought curls my mouth into an acidic smile. I decide it will be tonight. And suddenly I’m in a really good mood.

I spend the rest of the dwindling day preparing for Gregory’s demise: sorting important papers, culling books to keep, posting unsent letters, taking inventory of my coffee (I don’t want to be caught in the SHU without it). My heart races in anticipation of giving Gregory a bashing that will go down in the history of incarceration.

When it’s well past the final count, I stand against the far wall while Gregory sleeps content in his own debauchery, mouth agape, scraggly beard like something dead on his face. The guards won’t make their rounds for at least another hour, and the only noise comes from the soft murmur of the ventilation and Gregory’s ragged breathing. Standing there in the dark, all of the horrors of Gregory Bainks replay themselves like an earworm.

The lock I slipped into one of my socks makes a great bludgeoning weapon; a well-placed blow can shatter facial bones in seconds. I test the weight of it, bouncing it in my hands to figure out the best swinging arc for maximum effectiveness.

It is time.

The voice comes from someplace not of this world.

I obediently push off from the wall, gather strength for the first blow. I’m not sure I believe it was me that decided to do this. “You get no points for beating up old men,” is what I used to say. But this is different. This is personal. This is Gregory Bainks! And no one’s going to miss him. No one at all. I’ll probably get a commemoration plaque in the front of the prison for it.

My arms lift, seemingly impatient with delay; my body follows by shifting into a more balanced stance. Goodbye, Gregory!

The maddening grief (for it has to be grief) brings tears to my eyes. Never in my life has someone made me feel so helpless and alone and insignificant, as if my wellbeing is conveniently expendable. I wonder briefly if this is an inkling of what it means to be a victim, because the pain of losing Elias is as real as losing someone I deeply love to someone else’s tragedy: A careless gangbanger, a rapist. a murderer. It doesn’t matter. A year of selfless service to an old man proves I have the ability to care for someone other than myself, and I love Elias as much as my cantankerous Uncle Phil or my crotchety grandfather who prefers working on his old Volvo to pow-wowing with the kids.

I love Elias Hayes.

This revelation stills me. So that’s the ache I’ve been feeling all this time. The scalding and relentless unfathomable pain in my chest. Like being punished. Am I being punished?

Concepts like God and karma and poetic justice start swirling, and I wonder about the effectiveness of their cruelty. Dread creeps in like a heavy fog, bringing with it the feeling that I’m a specimen being regarded, almost pleasantly, by something much larger and craftier than I’ll ever be.

It’s interesting that I’ve fallen victim to the very predatory tactics that got me incarcerated. Just like Bainks, I saw my victims as things to be conquered. Lives to be collected and categorized. Trophies. How many did I make feel this same helpless despair? How many hearts did I rip out of fragile chests?

My eyes fall on the weapon in my hand making small pendulum motions. How many fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters would love to bash my head in with this lock in a sock? I too am a cancer within the psyche of my victims.

There! There is my closure. And it took losing Elias to realize it.

I’m no better than Gregory Bainks.

If I’d only seen Elias as nothing more than a paycheck, I could just write the whole incident off. Shit happens and yadda yadda yadda. But I went and got attached and got my ass handed to me by someone just as ruthless and conniving as I am.

I step away from Gregory, deflated. Long moments pass before I upend the sock and let the lock fall into my palm, place it and the sock on the desk. It’s as if I’m using someone else’s fingers to remove my shoes and climb into my bunk. I stare at the ceiling, the aching in my chest gelling into a solid throe of regret and sadness, as if my body wants to turn itself inside out.

Faces of the past form in the quiet dark. Hurt and broken faces. Masterpieces of my destruction from a lifetime of abuses. I’ve had a Gregory living inside me all along.

Tomorrow I’ll find Elias and give him the bad news. Another crushed face to join the heap of others—but at least I won’t be the epicenter of his suffering like I’ve been to so many others. I close my eyes, viciously aware of Elias’ absence. Gone are the stanzas of his snores, his movements that shift the bunk, the low muttering of his conversing with his dream people. I want his nearness. If I have to cry, then let it be on his shoulder so he can call me a sissy. Let it be with the only friend I have in this place.

I have much to contemplate these upcoming days. How can I atone for my heartlessness? My poor and destructive choices? Where do I begin? I mean, how do you even do that from an eighty-square-foot prison cell?

Never get attached. Prison 101.

I knew the rules. I didn’t heed them and now I’ve got Gregory, who made me face the monster that I am.

God how I hate Gregory!

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