A Hard and Threatening Place

John B. Marek 2019

I was standing against the outside wall of C-Block shooting the bull with 

Stringbean and Tommy Red. It was a damp and chilly April day, but the south- 

facing brick was collecting the weak afternoon sun and it felt good against my 

back. Heck, it felt good just to be outside after being locked away for so long. 

Tommy Red was going on about something; Slim Whitman or walleye fishing or 

kabuki dancing. It didn’t matter. I was only half-listening while nodding my head 

occasionally and tossing in a timely grunt when the decidedly one-way 

conversation started to lag.


In a place like that you don’t have friends, just enemies and guys who maybe,

might, if they didn’t have to go too far out of their way, you hoped, have your back if things went south.

Stringbean, yeah probably, 

for what that was worth; the guy was six feet tall and didn’t weigh a buck and a 

quarter sopping wet.


Tommy Red was a little tougher, and not afraid to mix it up, 

a lesson I’d learned a couple of months earlier when I came up a few dollars short 

paying off a sucker bet on, of all things, golf. But, I was pretty sure he would play 

Peter-in-the-Garden at the first sign of real trouble.


Not that I was looking for any. 

I was two months -- 53 days to be exact – away from walking out of that place for 

good and all I wanted was to keep my nose clean and my head low for the 

duration. Out beyond our little group, a half-dozen other clusters peppered the 

yard, each defending its own turf according to a pecking order that was both 

universally understood and impossibly vague.


Within the groups there was always some kind of activity going on, and little, if any, of it was good. Cigarettes, illicit mags (Farrah was the hot ticket in those days) and sometimes even pot or 

alcohol changed hands within a stone toss of the yard monitors. For the most 

part they didn’t care, so long as you weren’t obvious about it; so long as you didn’t 

make them look bad to the administrators. 

There was a momentary lull in Tommy Red’s muttering, and I was about to offer a 

timely grunt when the unmistakable shouts and whoops of a yard fight echoed off 

the brick from over where the Shop Boys hung out. I didn’t know either of them 

by name, but one of the brawlers was a broad, pie-faced thug who had welcomed 

me into the fold the previous year by slamming me upside the head with a 

quarter-pound piece of scrap iron he’d probably boosted from the metal shop.


Ihad been the first of many lessons in the capriciousness of the place; some 

random guy decides, for no apparent reason, that you are his bitch that day, and 

so it goes. My head hurt for half the week, probably a concussion, but even I knew 

better than to say anything to anyone. In that place there was a big difference 

between being a bitch and being a snitch. 

From across the yard everyone ran to crowd around the fighters. The monitors 

came too, of course, but a couple of steps slower – respecting the unwritten code 

of yard fights and hockey games that each guy got a fair number of shots in before 

the thing was broken up.


Normally, that would have been scary to me, but it was 

okay in this case because Pie Face was taking the worst of it, even though he 

outweighed his greasy-looking opponent by at least 20 pounds. Greasy got two 

good punches into the middle of that flat, blank face before the monitors clawed in 

and the mob scattered with hoots and boos. Only then did I notice that at some 

point during the fight one of the pigeons that routinely circled the yard had 

crapped on the shoulder and all down the side of my brand new CPO jacket. 

“Mom’s going to kill me,” I thought. “This will have to be dry cleaned.”


Then the bell rang and I headed off to Mrs. Gibson’s science class.

Image: Study for Two Dogs Fighting
By Eoin llewellyn

© 2019 The Beat Goes On