Six Basement


The following essay received the First Place in memoir in the PEN 2009 Prison Writing Contest. Mr. Hughes has allowed us to share his work.

I was 12 months into my bit in reform school and had caught some kind of awful disease. I had sores all over, with puffy scabs on them. They seem to drain and spread, and my face looked terrible with my whole chin and half my face one big scab. My body was peppered with scabs of all different sizes. I wasn't the only one–75% of the population looked the same way. We looked as if we were mutants, the aftermath of the nuclear war. There was talk of closing the place down, but it didn't happen in 1959 or 1969. At 16 years old, my lofty, skinny ass frame was in torment.

Horror stories of the prison hospital spread fast and everyone was reluctant to go there for help. Thus, the disease got worse and became an epidemic. It got to the point where I couldn't look into the mirror anymore. Soon I wouldn't be able to see anyway at the rate it was spreading.

Jerry, a boy with no teeth, looked like the cavity of a decayed tooth. Fay was a homosexual and her smooth complexion had run amok. Her attractive face was no more, hidden beneath a crust of scabs.

We were shunned by anyone who wasn't infected. Rumor had it that it was carried by rats that materialized from nowhere and became thicker than setting cement. The only relief from the disease was to escape mentally. I leaned against the wall in depression over my environment and slid down sharing the floor with two of my friends. A boy named Stew, and Fay. I rolled up my sleeve. Stew handed me the surgical hose, which I wrapped around my arm above my muscle, looped it, held one end between my teeth, and pulled it tight with the other hand. My vein popped up like a jelly bean. Stew handed me the hypodermic needle with a quarter shot of heroin in it. Fay, with her money–or was it charm?–always got heroin in for us. I never questioned who supplied it. Obviously, one of the guards. I didn't shoot heroin before I came to reform school. That and smoking P.C.P was good medicine to forget the pain.

I ran it up (shot it into my jelly bean vein) and released the hose from my arm. The heroin rush: I felt it starting at my feet, coming up my legs, my stomach and chest, until it took over my whole being. (We ran up a lot those days.) I'm floating in the air on a magic carpet, riding through space in the dead of darkness. The planets are caressing each other and pairing off like a love song . . . I'm nodding off peaceful like.

Each day was filled with heroin highs and joints dipped in P.C.P. The days turned themselves inside out like a dirty pair of socks–and equaled 14 months of horror.

“Fay, I'm going to the hospital or I'm going to commit suicide–sideways.”

“Sideways? That must be the worst way.” She laughed. “You're not going to the butcher shop, are you? Oh, tell me you're not!”

Gosh, I wished she wouldn't call it that! “Look at us, Fay. Look around you. Can it be any worse than this? I'd rather be dead!”

“Don't talk like that!” Her face was solemn, or what I could see of it.

“God, George,” she exclaimed. “You don't know what could happen to you! You could end up in Six Basement!” Six Basement was a horror story in itself. They say it's the entrance to Hell.

“I'm going to find out.” I walked away. Fay's eyes followed me and I looked back and tried to smile.

“Dumb ass white boy's gonna get kilt in da butcher shop!” I heard someone say. We still had movement on the compound and lock down wasn't for an hour. I assumed I had time to go there and back (boy was I wrong!).

It was a pathetic building for a hospital. I walked through the door. I stood on the inside looking down the long hall, which had a twelve foot ceiling holding a row of round white lights hanging on chains. The walls were puke green and the floor tile was vomit yellow. The trim round the doors was an up chuck color, probably made from a combination of two boys’ intestines. I didn't hear any screams or see any sides of beef hanging around.

There were a few doors on each side of the hall with signs on them, which I couldn't read. I investigated as I strolled down the hall and put my hand on the knob of the first door. I opened it just a crack and looked inside, three empty beds sat side by side. I closed the door and went on to the next.

A terrible bellow came from behind the door. I cracked it open a few inches and peered into the room. A boy sat in a black chair with a bleeding mouth. A tall thin man in a white jacket stood with his back to me.

“You sonofabitch, you pulled the wrong tooth!” the boy yelled angrily.

“God help me!” I whispered. I often called on him when I needed help and I always seemed to need a lot of it.

I shut the door and crossed the hall to the third room. I heard moaning and when I tried the door, found it was locked and put my ear next to the wooden door and heard a woman's voice. It must have been a nurse who was craving sweets. She was yelling, “Oh sugar! Sugar! Hooon-ey!”

I moved to the next door and opened it. “Can I help you?” a lady in a white uniform asked. She was holding a bedpan.

Now this was more like it–a real woman! “I came to see the doctor.”

“The last door down the hall,” she said, smiling. She seemed pleasant and didn't flinch when she saw my face. We didn't see women on the compound.

At least not any real ones. Maybe I should have came here before, I thought. She had a rather nice tailgate and I was drinking her up with my eyes. “That way,” she said, pointing down the hall.

I could have done the rest of my time just looking at her. I thanked her and walked to the last door, wondering if the stories I heard were true. Was there a laboratory behind the door with a maniac doctor running around with a test tube in his hand, waiting for . . . me? I put my hand to my face, then turned around again. I knocked on the door and entered.

The room was large, with the same thrilling colors as the hallway. It looked like a chemistry or biology class was about to begin. Racks of test tubes sat here and there on an L-shaped counter that ran along the walls.

The mad doctor heated a vial of liquid over a Bunsen Burner and laughed sadistically as he held it up to the light. His assistant, who was chewing on a nasty cigar, tapped on the doctor’s shoulder, pointing in my direction. “Come in, boy!” He motioned with his finger for me to approach. His assistant put his cigar in a glass of water.

I put my finger to my chest. “Who, me?” (besides, I was already in–couldn't he see that?) I walked over to the blind man.

“Let me look at you. Yes, uh huh. You have an extreme case of impetigo.”

“Thanks, Doc. You've been a big help.” Scared, I turned to leave. I didn't want to ask what it was.

“Wait a minute, young man.”

“Are you talking to me?” I backed toward the door, trembling.

“If you boys would come here when it first starts it would be easier for all of us!” He seemed a little upset. Apparently he hadn't heard the stories going around. “By the way, my name is Dr. Spocky. Fill this form out.” He handed me a pen and a form of some sort.

“You fill it out!” I said with sarcasm, covering my illiteracy as I handed it back.

“You're all the same, aren't you–Mr. Tough Guy! What's your name and number?”

“Hughes, 19037. Will this take long? I want to get back before count so I won't get in trouble.”

“What cottage are you in?”


“I'll call them. You won't be going back for several weeks.”

He could have run over me with a locomotive! “What? Several weeks! No, I can't stay here that long!”

“I'm sorry, you have no choice.”

“The hell I don't! I'm leaving!” I saw him push a red button by the phone as I went out the door. I hustled up the hall as quickly as I could. A huge, large-breasted nurse with short black hair, who looked like a woman wrestler with the face of the Wicked Witch of the North, stood in her white uniform in front of the door. The closer I got the bigger she became. “Excuse me, I'd like to pass,” I said firmly.

“I think the doctor want to see you!” I was closely acquainted with the sport of hand-to-hand combat between two opponents. And I knew that was my only way out. It took only two hits! She hit me and I hit the floor. She twisted my arm behind my back, held it with one hand, and jerked me up by my shirt collar and marched me back to the doctor's office. I had a choking sensation because my toes were barely touching the floor. I was pushed through the door and released.

“I told you you had no choice,” said the doctor.

“I was just checking! There're things I need at the cottage.”

“We have everything you need here.”

I wondered if he had a fix (shot of heroin). What would I do? Maybe I could get some money and buy some from a guard. Maybe I could get a letter to Fay–but then I can't write. I could send up smoke signals, but I don't have a blanket. Maybe I could see another boy and have him take a message to Fay. “What causes this, Doc?” I asked, still wanting a fix.

“Filth, germs, rats, roaches. Don't worry! I'll fix you.”

By George, he did have everything!

“Take off your clothes, Hughes,” the doctor ordered.

The large-breasted wrestler stood by the door cracking her knuckles. Only a tank could get past her. So I followed his command. Doctor Spocky meta-morphized into Doctor Frankenstein and his assistant turned into the Hunchback of Notre Dame. They strapped me to the stainless steel table! I struggled and tried to get away and knew that all the stories I heard were true!

The Hunchback held what looked like a giant set of ice tongs with a giant ball of gauze between the ends. He dipped it into alcohol and handed it to the doctor. The evil that dared not speak its name came out of hiding and gave birth to that moment. Frankenstein's face became distorted, the bones seemed to rearrange themselves, and suddenly he became the Prince of Darkness, switching back and forth like a light switch being turned on and off in rapid succession.

“God!” I screamed out. The large-breasted wrestler grabbed two handfuls of my hair and held my head in place. The hideous doctor scraped the scabs from my face with both hands–that sent me into turmoil–on the tongs as if he were sanding a piece of wood! It burned and hurt so bad I felt faint. Blood was running into my mouth. I spat at the doctor. The wrestler raised my head and smashed it down on the stainless steel table. Tweety Bird was flying around my head having such a swell time. I yelled and screamed! Bam! Now there were two Tweety Birds flying around my head having a swell time, or perhaps I was the Birdman of Alcatraz! He was scraping my whole body! It was that bad. The pain! The pain! The awful pain!

I have become the Frankenstein monster. They were cutting off my arms and stitching new ones on and replacing my legs. No other pain could account for what I was going through. I waited for them to drive the metal stake through my head and attach electrodes to each end and hoist me up to the ceiling where an opening would allow lightning to strike me. They unbuckled me and I couldn't move. The wrestler picked me up in her arms (why couldn't it had been the bedpan lady?) She carried me into another room and let me sink into a tub of warm and comfortable dreamy water.

It took only a red second for the water to turn pinkish from the blood. I was naked and I didn't care. I showered every day, but it had been fourteen months since I had been in a tub and it was heaven after going through that torture. It was all over now. I was glad! I laid back and thought of pleasant things–girls, ice cream, candy, girls, television, fast cars, girls, girls, girls . . .

“Get out and dry off.” The order came too soon. It was the wrestler still giving orders. I thought she and Fay would be a match in a fight. Mouse could probably get 50 to 1 odds on one of them. Fay was a tall blond boy and gay, but she was my friend and she could fight and kick ass! If I referred to her as 'he', she'd kick my ass. She knew karate! I believe she would fight for me because she liked me too much.

I got out and dried off, the wrestler left the room and came back shortly with a bottle and some cotton balls. I had the towel wrapped around me, which she demanded. I wasn't giving it up. “No!” I said firmly, remembering the last time I said something firmly to her.

“I guess I'll have to take it!” Her hand flew out so fast I didn't have time to blink before she hit me.

“All right!” I unwrapped the towel angrily and gave it to her. There I stood embarrassed and completely nude. She sat on a stainless steel stool next to me and poured some purple liquid medicine on the cotton, dabbing at my sores. I was looking like a polka-dot person. “What is this for?” I asked.

“It helps to kill germs and dry up the sores.”

I was becoming purple all over. I caught a thought of the movie, The Boy with the Green Hair and now The Boy with the Purple Penis. “There's no sores down there!” I said loudly.

“You could take advantage of me with no one else in the room,” she told me.

“Oh, I wouldn't do that!” I said quickly and she swatted me like a fly in the kitchen and picked me up like a five-pound sack of potatoes. She lowered me with an evil eye. “Do the ones on my back,” I said, turning around. She grabbed my arm and turned me back. She pulled my arms down sharply to my sides, almost out of the sockets. One arm felt longer than the other. She continued to work on my organ.

“Relax,” she said.

“Can't I get dressed?” I was scared.

“I'll tell you when to get dressed! When I'm through with you!” she yelled. The door opened and there stood Ms. Bed Pan, bless her heart. She saved the day. She was the head nurse and called the wrestler into the other room. I heard loud voices and a door slam. Ms. Bed Pan came in. I wrapped the towel around me quickly. I felt embarrassed. “Thanks,” I said. She gave me a pleasant smile and didn't say anything. She finished making me look like a speckled egg and game me a Ben Casey top and bottom pajama to put on. She waited in the other room.

“I'm ready,” I called out. She came in, took my hand in hers–hers was soft and warm–and led me down the hall to the room with three beds in them.

“I'll have them bring you a tray of food.”

“Thanks. That was terrible what they did to me.”

“I'm sorry,” she said. “But it has to be done every three days.”

“I don't want to go through that again,” I said, almost ready to cry.

“We have to make you well and that's the only way.”

I crawled into bed and pulled the covers up, hoping she would tuck me in. She was kind to me.

“I'm going home now. Ms. Whitehorn will make sure you get your tray.” She left and locked the door.

I fell asleep for a long time and woke up to the unlocking of my door. The wrestler flipped the light on. “Come with me, boy!”


“You're going to the Six Basement.”

“No, I don't want to go there!” I didn't know what it was, but I had heard terrible stories about it. “I'll do whatever you say. Please don't take me there!”

“Too late now. Let's go.”

Well, she made three of me and there was no sense fighting. “Ms. Whitehorn is supposed to bring my tray . . . “

“I'm Ms. Whitehorn and you missed it!”

I followed her down the hall and through the doctor's office. She opened the door with a big key and led me down a long winding flight of stairs to a hallway with steel doors on both sides. This was the horror chamber of Six Basement. She opened the door and pushed me inside. I was plunged into pitch darkness. The steel door closed behind me with a slam. My heart was again pounding violently. I was frightened and an uneasy feeling came over me–maybe I would never get out of here.

I began to shake all over, only this time not from fright. I needed a fix, bad, and I could feel the cramps coming. I wondered if someone else was in here with me. “Is anyone here?” I said aloud fearing someone would answer. There was no reply. The walls and floor were cold steel. I felt my way around the floor. There was no place to go to the bathroom–no toilet–just a floor that sloped inward to the center of the room with a drain. I didn't even have a blanket and I was freezing and sweating snow flakes. I walked around with my arms in front of me, across my stomach, holding on to my elbows.

My stomach was cramping. The hurt was like someone hammering inside me. My muscles tightened up and split open in the centers. It's cold and I'm walking through heavy snow with no shoes. I'm freezing all over. The snow is up to my knees now and I can hardly move my legs. The sweat came and turned hot and burned my skin. I was hurting, hurting, hurting!

Oh, Fay, get me a fix! Please, Fay! The center of the floor began to crumble away like wet cardboard and flames shot up beneath it. There were monsters with long tails down there, gritting their teeth. The fire didn't seem to hurt them as the floor fell away. I stood in the corner, my back to the wall, only inches left to stand on. I was terrified! I found myself falling, falling, falling. The floor closed up as I hit it.

I was resting in a position with my body curled, legs bent and drawn towards my chest, head bowed forward and my arms tucked under my legs. My body trembled as a battle inside took place for hours on end, dying of thirst for a fix, or a hit of P.C.P. I lay in my own defecation and urine and ate nothing. The second day two guards washed out my cell with a high pressure fire house and the force pushed me around like a rubber ball and the light from the open door cut my eyes. The physical withdrawal symptoms were killing me. The delirium made me crazy at times and I saw all sorts of things that were never there. For a time I was the thief on the cross next to Jesus. My muscles exploded with cramps and I fell from the cross as convulsions wore me to a thin frazzle.

If I were on the street, I could do what other addicts would do–cheat, lie, steal, and sell anything and everything, including their own souls, anything to get a fix. But I wasn't. There was no fix at hand. One thing a drug addict never does is set out to become one. I begged the guards for help. They only laughed at me and slapped me around. The night of the second day a tray of food was pushed through the slot in the door onto the floor and quickly closed and locked. I was hungry, so hungry. I scraped the food from the floor and ate whatever would stay down.

I lay by the door so that I wouldn't miss the next meal when it was shoved through the slot. I heard them open the steel door across from mine and beat the boy for kicking on the door. One of them said, “I think he's dead.” The other one said, “Well, he 'fell down the stairs', didn't he?” They laughed. A life meant nothing to them.

I asked the guards if I could use a bathroom and they said do it on the floor, it washes down the drain and they had a big laugh over that. I'd give 'em something to laugh about! I had to go bad so I pooped on the food tray and when they picked up the trays I slid it out the slot to them. Big mistake! They beat me pretty bad that night.

That night and early the next morning I had the last of my convulsions, delirium, and muscle cramps. Although I was very weak, I had no choice, my next step was to escape. The wrestler didn't know it, but she was going to help me.

The afternoon of the third day in Six Basement I didn't feel myself Jonesin' (slang for wanting a drug bad). The wrestler came to get me and marched me nude up to the doctor's office. Doctor Frankenstein and the Hunchback of Norte Dame had me go through another scraping, the speckled egg bit and gave me a clean Ben Casey outfit. On the way back down to Six Basement I walked close to the wrestler. I had to flirt with her and try for the keys. “Look, baby–” She stopped short on the stairs, her keys jingling on her side. “I know we got off on the wrong foot the other day.” I tried to sound sincere. “I was scared. It's been a long time since I've been with a real woman, and you are a real woman.” I moved closer, touching her arm with my hand, hating myself for every moment of it. But what she did I hated worse.

She pulled me to her (have you ever kissed a water buffalo?). Everything was working smoothly. She put her hand down my thin pants and my mind started blinking, Danger! Danger! Danger! Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! She grabbed my penis and scrotum in a deadly vise grip and twisted her hand. I was paralyzed! Her look was evil. “What's up, Hughes?”

“Nnnothing.” I doubted that it would ever get up again. She relaxed her grip and I sighed. She removed her hand and then pushed me down the remaining five steps. We were across from Six Basement. She unlocked the door, leaving the keys in the door, and opened it. It was now or never! I rushed her with all my strength and pushed her inside onto the floor and slammed the door closed as fast as I could and locked it. The wrestler pounded on the door and was screaming threats of violence as I stumbled up the stairs. I fumbled through the keys until I found one that unlocked the door at the top of the stairs. I passed through it and was rear of the doctor's office. I closed the door and slowly moved across the floor. The doctor and his assistant had their backs to me working on something on the table.

Should I wait for them to finish up and leave? No, I decided. I couldn't risk it. Softly I walked past them as far away as possible. I saw the door and opened it. The hinges alarmed them with a squeaking sound. “Hey! Where are you going?” (out for coffee?) I shot out of the office like a rabbit with his tail shot off. “Stop! Come back here!” they yelled, chasing me. Ms. Bedpan stuck her head out the door as I ran by and gave chase also.

“Please be unlocked, door!” I said running towards the exit to my freedom. “Oh, God.” I dialed him up again. “Let me get away! Please!” I turned the handle and the door opened and I dashed outside like a deer. The compound was closed and the cottages were locked for count. No one was in sight. I ran towards the administration building. Doctor Frankenstein, the Hunchback and Ms. Bedpan were right behind me. That was the only place I could get out without having to climb the fence, so I ran and ran.

“Stop! Stop!” I heard the good doctor yell (I wasn't taking his advice today). I was running up the walkway of the administration building. I was getting close! Shortly I'd be running down the hill to freedom.

Two guards came out just before I got to the door. I was going so fast I couldn't stop and ran into one of them and he grabbed my flimsy shirt. I tore out of my Ben Casey shirt and announced, “Not this day!” and I ran back the way I came. I charged Doctor Frankenstein. He reached for me but I cut to the left and plowed my way through the hedge beside the walkway and made a mad dash for the dining hall. Now, Doctor Frankenstein, the Hunchback, Ms. Bedpan and two guards were chasing me.

I looked back. The Hunchback had stopped to catch his breath. Ms. Bedpan was slowing down and so was Doctor Frankenstein. But the two guards were coming on strong. I ran across the open field to the chow hall and disappeared behind it, looking for some place to hide. The only place was a dumpster. It always worked on T.V., but I couldn't take the chance.

Both guards ran around the corner and I took off again, towards the Clock House this time. (The Clock House was for new arrivals who didn't have any time in. They went through a series of examinations, got shots and were told the rules. Their time started in the Clock House.) I looked to see if my pursuers were gaining on me. The two guards were running for first place, Doctor Frankenstein had joined the race in full stride again and was second, Ms. Bedpan was third, and the Hunchback hobbled along last. I ran past a tall tree and behind the clock house, tired, half-naked, barefoot, purple and desperate for a place to hide!

The dirt had eroded from the lower part of the building, creating an opening. I crawled in like a snake, getting as far under the building as I could and came face to face with a nest of furless, newborn rats! Light came in from the opening allowing me to see large rats scurrying everywhere. But mother held the fort, protecting her young ones, nipping at my arm. I slid away a few feet and settled down. I couldn't slide out or I could be caught. I couldn't crawl forward of I'd be attacked. I was trapped like a rat!

I lay in the dirt, my heart nearly beating out of my polka-dot chest, and watched the feet of the guards, Doctor Frankenstein, Ms. Bedpan, and the Hobbling Hunchback go by. I dozed off and when I jumped awake and hit my head on a floor beam, I saw it was dark and the darkness was now my friend. I waited a long time, looking out from under the rat-infested building, seeing feet from time to time until it was so black outside I could see nothing. I eased out and walked to the end of the Clock House. I peeked around the corner and saw flashlights off in the distance coming my way. Floodlights were on around the administration building and flashlights got nearer. I ran like an escaped prisoner (and that's damn fast!) into the darkness and across another field. I was in the Black Sea at 10,000 fathoms, waiting to run into a school of man-eating sharks. Instead, Slam! I ran into the fence (that hurt!)

Picking myself up, I was terrified to see the flashlights still closing in on me. I backed up about 20 feet and then ran for the fence. I climbed it so fast I couldn't tell you if there was barbed wire or cotton candy on top. I ran on the free side like a devil chasing a sinner and started my journey down the long hill to freedom. I stumbled and fell a few times, but didn't let that stop me. More flashlights! I sprang into a pile of leaves like a ground hog and prayed. The flashlights brought their owners to kick around in the leaves and carried their owners again.

I made my way down the hill to the road and jumped on the back of a trash truck. A few dozen miles down the road I felt safe enough to get off the truck. I walked though a housing project and checked out the clotheslines in the rear of the houses until I found a pair of pants and shirt that halfway fit. I checked front porches for shoes but only found a pair of muddy rubber boots that were too small. I put them on anyway; it was better than going barefoot. It seemed as if I had walked for miles and miles, watching stores close and gas stations turn off their lights. I dodged cops and was alert to my surroundings. The city was so quiet I could hear the traffic lights changing themselves.

It was early morning before I found something to eat. A milk truck stopped, leaving bread, milk and some sort of coffee cakes on people's front porches. (Big business for the milk companies in the ’50s and ’60s in the city.) (Breakfast for one, please.) A cop car drove by and I threw myself down on the grass on top of my coffee cake. It wasn't coffee cake I wanted after all. I wanted a fix. The last few hours had left me drained, weak, frightened, and lonely. I needed to find someone I knew, someone who could give me a fix. So I hitchhiked to Southeast Washington where I knew there was a house where they had heroin. An old friend's brother ran a dope business there.

“Hey man, my brother told me you was in the joint. Come on in and I'll give you something to make you feel good. I got the bomb, man. 80% pure heroin!”

It was that easy. I didn't have to say a word.

I was handed a needle to run it up. I tied a necktie around my arm and my old buddy, the jelly bean vein, popped up again. I took the needle in my hand and began to shake all over. What was this? Suddenly I was back in the pit of darkness of Six Basement, remembering the horror of coming down cold turkey. Was it worth it? Was it? I hadn't stuck the needle in yet. Just a push is all I needed, one little prick and it would be done. Tears streamed down my face as I struggled to control my shaking. I wanted it so bad! Instead, I hurled the needle across the room and let the necktie fall to the floor. Better judgment overrode my want. I had no place to go. So I went home to Ma.

Ma had me another “dad”! Another notch for whatever she notched. I wouldn't call him “dad”. Those days were gone forever! He was a bum and didn't work–didn't even have a hustle. This guy was a Huckleberry Finn who whitewashed fences and did a rather good job on Ma. He was a drunk, a good-for-nothing, and took all of Ma's tips each day for booze.

Ma was glad to see me, shocked at my purple appearance, but happy to see me. I don't know what happened to me, what change took place. I saw things different. I felt like I had grown up, or was starting to mature. I used to think if the old man of the house didn't come home drunk and kick the stuffing out of me and Ma, he didn't care about us. Getting knocked around growing up, I expected it. That's what real family life was about. I was sure wrong about that! We weren't getting kicked around anymore if I had anything to do with it.

It was time I took care of one of these “dads”! So one day when he was staggering drunk and Ma was at work, I told him to get out. Kapoot. “You're outta here!” I yelled. He didn't want me there anyway and broke a whiskey bottle on the table and came at me, with the jagged end. I thought how one day Fay had flown across the table in the chow hall yelling “Hiiiya!” and kicked the crap out of a smart mouth boy. The only Chinese word I knew was chop suey and chow mein. Would that be enough?

He lunged at me with the broken bottle. I dodged his attack and he fell into Ma's high-back chair and got up slow as last Friday. He slurred his words of threat while chasing me again. I maneuvered. He killed Ma's lamp shade (Ma was going to be pissed). He swung at me and stabbed the wallpaper. I yelled “Chop Ya!” and took a karate stance, like I saw Fay do, with one fist out at my side and the other one outstretched in front of me. This was indeed the self-defense that would render my attacker disabled by crippling kicks and deadly punches!

It only took a flash of time for him to fall face first, stabbing the carpet on his way down to the floor. Yes, Ma would be pissed when she came home and found her dead high-back chair, lamp shade, wallpaper, dead carpet and her boyfriend dead drunk. I never threw a punch. That shows how effective a karate stance can be when you master it!

I took his money that was Ma's anyway and laid it on the table for her. Then I dragged him outside the apartment and down the street, and while a few onlookers stood by, I got his clothes and piled them in the gutter beside him. A fast phone call brought the police to pick up the drunken bum. I watched over my shoulder making sure they weren't coming for me. I did that a lot on the run. I always jumped when a car door slammed or the phone ran. I tied on a pretty good drunk myself, that night. No sense in letting good liquor go to waste.

Ma came home and I explained everything to her. She was more happy he was gone than mad about her dead furniture. She had been trying to get him to leave for months. We talked most of the night, bonding you might say. We laughed about crazy things I did when I was small, but they didn't seem funny at the time. When I was ten, Ma was working, and I was setting outside on the front steps enjoying the sun and watching the cars go by. A little redheaded girl my age, who lived down the block, walked up and sat down beside me and said hello. I had seen her before and thought she was the prettiest girl in the world–besides Ma–and now she was sitting beside me. I said hi and couldn't think of anything else to say, so I said “Can you spit a luggy far?” I hocked up a big one and spit it clear across the sidewalk feeling proud of myself and waited for praise from the little redhead and none came. Only a frown appeared on her face.

“That's gross!” she finally said.

I thought it was pretty cool myself. “Not everyone can spit a luggy that far,” I said with confidence.

She scooted closer to me and I scooted away. Again she scooted closer and I stayed put. Well, the next thing I knew, she up and kissed me right on the mouth. It wasn't a peck. It was movie-star style and the first time I had kissed a girl.

“Did you like it?” She asked.

Did I ever! I jumped up and ran in the house and came back to her with a pair of Ma's best earrings and gave them to her. “A gift for that wonderful kiss.” She was no fool. She kept kissing and I kept bringing Ma's jewelry to her, until I had no more to bring. I had to get her a lunch bag to carry it home in. Ma didn't have any left! The little redhead kissed me goodbye and I was in love. Y'know, the puppy kind of stuff.

When Ma came home from work it didn't take detective Columbo to figure out her jewelry was gone. I told Ma what happened and told her I was in love. Ma kinda smiled and hugged me. She said love makes you do crazy things. Somehow she understood. She wrote a note to get her jewelry back and I carried it back to the little redhead's house. When I gave the note to her father he turned angry.

“You're not getting it back! Now go home!” he screamed. I could smell whiskey on his breath.

“No, I have to take Ma's jewelry back!” I insisted and he punched me in the mouth and bloodied my lip. I went home empty-handed. Ma's latest boyfriend and wannabe dad had come home and was sitting at the table drinking a Budweiser. I told them what happened and they saw the blood on my lip. Both of them were angry at the little girl's father and Big John wanted to go down there and thump on his head. Ma objected and said she would handle it herself. She knew he would beat him badly and put him in the hospital, or kill him. She told him to sit and drink his beer. She took my hand and led me upstairs to the bathroom and sat me on the side of the tub. She got a damp washcloth and placed it gently on my lip until it stopped bleeding.

“I'm sorry,” she said to me sadly. “I should have taken care of it myself and not sent you down there.” She kissed my forehead and we went downstairs and I sat at the table staring at Big John, as Ma flew out the front door.

“Wanna beer, kid?”

“No thanks,” I replied. He was a big man and strong as steel. Why, one time he back-handed me and knocked me clean out of my chair. Another time he gave Ma two black eyes with one punch, but he was pretty good to me and Ma when he wasn't pounding on us.

We waited for Ma for twenty minutes. Big John paced the floor like a leopard in a cage and swallowed countless Budweisers. “I oughta go down there, damnit!” he said more to himself than me.

The front door burst open and Ma's lip was bleeding. She looked at Big John who had turned red with anger. “Down the block,” she said. “Green house, white shutters!”

Now it was Big John's turn to fly out the door in rage. “He's gonna hurt him bad, ain't he?” I asked. Ma nodded.

I took Ma's hand and led her up the stairs like a big person would and I sat her on the edge of the tub. I got a damp washcloth and put it softly on her lip until the bleeding stopped. She looked at me through tear-stained eyes and raised her arm to hug me and I flinched. Being slapped so often by somebody, it was a natural reaction. She pulled me into her arms and held me quite a while. Then we walked down stairs holding hands. We sat at the table and Ma drank a Budweiser.

“Wanna sip?” she asked.

I grinned and took a little taste. It was awful!

Meanwhile, down at the green house with white shutters, Big John kicked in the front door and chased the little redhead's father into the kitchen and caught him. He told him why he was there and gave him a thumpin' with two bloody lips. “You like to beat up on women and kids, do ya?” Pow! He fired a fist into the man's face. His wife was standing by the refrigerator with the door open screaming. She had been putting away groceries. Several brown bags of different sizes sat on the counter beside two gallons of milk and a bottle of whiskey. Big John yelled, “Shut up! Shut the hell up!” She did and he pounded the father again. He drew back his fist to hit the bloody face and saw the little redhead hiding under the table.

“Don't hit my daddy anymore . . . please!” she yelled.

“So you're what this is all about,” said Big John. “You're going to break a lot of hearts.” He stood up and the little redhead's mother ran from the kitchen and returned with a brown paper bag and sat it on the counter.

“Take it! It's all there, I promise!”

Big John pulled the father to his feet and said, “If anyone of your family ever touches anyone I care for ever again, I'll be back and you won't like it!” He walked over to the counter, snatched the bag and left.

Ma and I waited nervously at the table until Big John walked in with blood on his T-shirt. We both jumped up and Ma ran to him. “My God, are you all right?” He nodded. “You didn't . . . he's not . . . ?”

“Dead? No. I beat him up a little, okay a lot, and gave him a couple bloody lips to let him know he made a big mistake hittin' my woman and my kid.”

There it was, out in the open. We were a family.

Big John's huge hand went into the bag. “And retrieved your . . . carrots?”

He had grabbed the wrong bag from the counter when he left the green house with white shutters. Oh, we got the jewelry back. But we laughed and laughed like never before and every time after that we saw a carrot in the produce department of the grocery store, we got a smile.

That seemed like a lifetime ago when that happened and here I was fresh out of reform school and on the run, laughing with Ma about the carrot story. We really bonded that night and became closer, sharing a mother’s and son's love.

When all was said and done, nothing had changed. I was still wanted by the cops for escaping and Ma was still lonely for a man. Years ago Big John had ran off with a younger woman and Ma couldn't seem to replace him. I hung around for three weeks to see if she was going to be all right.

Ma found another stray “dad”–at least he had a good job and didn't drink much. He was not violent and didn't raise his voice, or his fist. He was married and only stayed on weekends, and I knew Ma was in good hands.

I was tired of being on the run and the cops had been to the house twice looking for me. I was jumping at every sound and shadow. It was a miserable way to live. I had been convicted of joy-riding in a stolen car and sentenced to two and a half years. I still owed a debt to society and I decided to go back to reform school and finish serving my time, no matter how bad it was.

They had a greeting committee waiting for me. After the thumpin', I was put in the hole and given six more months for escaping. My impetigo finally cleared up and I never went back. I heard Nurse Whitehorn (the wrestler) got fired. I was glad to see Fay and I was still there when she made parole to California. I never heard from her but I hope she is doing all right.

These days I have to remind myself of what's important: love, family, leading a good honest life, and freedom. Sometimes life is a tough lesson to learn . . . I'm still learning.

George Hughes is currently an inmate in Virginia.

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