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.
It had 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.