The Beat Within: An Idiot’s Tale


From his “home” inside the Ellis Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections, Paul Jay Reed tells the story of his brief, but meaningful friendship with an HIV-positive fellow prisoner. This piece was originally published by The Beat Within, a juvenile justice system writing workshop, which has generously allowed The Crime Report to share.

An Idiot's Tale

It is a tale told by an idiot;

Full of sound and fury…

-William Shakespeare

I was glad to find out I was being transferred from Holliday Unit to Byrd Unit. I was being shipped from one intake unit to another as a transient. I was glad because I was going from a 54-man dorm to a two-man cell. Although the cells are the classic 6×9 type, with bars and rolling doors, it was more private than a dorm. Although the only time we'd come out of our cells would be for chow and to take showers, and there'd be no television or dayroom time, it is less chaotic than a dormitory. Sure, I'd miss the Cowboys's Sunday games — it was the end of the season and they were finally winning some games — but I'd have time to catch up on some reading and writing. I'd only be there two to eight weeks, before being transferred to my assigned unit.

As I walked down the corridor of cells, heading to my cell, I glanced into each cell at its occupants. Some were sleeping, others sitting on their bunks reading, writing, talking to their cellies, or just staring out the windows on the adjacent wall. Most of the inmates just stared at me as I passed by; few spoke to me. I began to wonder who my new cellmate would be. What would he be like? Would we get along, have anything in common, etc.? Forrest Gump's adage that “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get,” is applicable to getting a new cellie.

I finally came to my cell. The light was on and a guy was on the top bunk (I was assigned the bottom). He was reading a book. He was a light-skinned black man, wearing glasses. He peered from his reading to see who I was. We greeted each other laconically.

“What's up?”

“All right.”

That is the typical prison salute. Anything beyond that in greeting is usually viewed with suspicion.

As the door to my new cell rolled open, I entered carrying my bed roll and potato sack “chain” bag that contained my only personal possessions: a few books, some writing material, hygiene items, a few bags of coffee and a plastic cup.

I placed my bag and bedroll on my bunk, as the door rolled and slammed shut behind me. I looked up at my new cellie and smiled a big smile. He looked up from his book, noticed my smile, and returned the smile.

“I'm Paul,” I said, extending my hand.

“Jessie,” he said, offering his hand in return.

These days I prefer to give my first name instead of my last name or some street or prison pseudonym. I've discovered we tend to try to live up to the impressions of nicknames, sometimes to our detriment. I've decided to live up to who I really am, Paul.

After our first hour together, we discovered that we were alike in many ways. He's two years my senior, enjoys working out, and likes to read. Jessie is originally from Memphis, Tennessee. He lived in Texas over a decade.

The first day of our celling together passed without incident. Jessie, with his heavy southern drawl and propensity for “Bubba” clichés (country boy anecdotes) was fairly easy to get along with. He usually reads from his Bible or from one of the three or four tomes that made up his functioning library. Jessie and I spent our days and nights discussing life, including prison life — this is his first trip to the Big House. I shared with him a lot about my own life and how my present way of thinking evolved from the lessons I've learned from triumphs and tragedies.

Jessie became increasingly interested in me and my life, as we got to know each other.

One evening, after we'd returned from chow, Jessie came in and began pacing the floor of our miniscule cell. I could tell he had something on his mind. Finally, he sat down in front of me and began to speak to me in low tones (prison is replete with glib ear hustlers who are expert conversation burglars!)

“Man, there is something I want to tell you. I mean, you and me cool, right?”

“Absolutely,” I answered.

“Man, I've learned so much these past few days from listening to you. You've taught me that I don't have to be ashamed of anything about myself. So, I want to share something with you… I'm HIV positive.”

I actually had an idea this may be the case. First, there are a number of HIV positive inmates here, awaiting transfer to units closest to medical districts. Second, Jessie often went to the pill window and received extra snacks at meal time. Third, though he is about my height and weight, he is kept on a high calorie diet. Though I wasn't certain what it was, I knew he had a serious medical condition. Yet, I listened as if I hadn't a clue. I sat back on my bunk, placed the book I had in hand down, and gave Jessie my undivided attention. He sat on the toilet seat, using it as a stool — our cell had no other furniture besides a sink and our bunks. The locker boxes are overhead.

Jessie looked directly at me — this was kind of humorous, because Jessie is cockeyed; so one eye looked at me, while the other at the wall behind me. The subject was serious, but his attempt to make eye contact was funny.

“I've had it over seven years,” he resumed, “I caught it from my wife.”

“How'd you find out?” I asked.

“Well, I got called to the chaplain's office once while I was doing state jail time. He informed me I had a phone call from my wife who needed to talk to me. I didn't know what to think. I figured it was about somebody dying. I thought, 'Oh, Lawd!' You know that's the only time they call you to the chaplain's office. Whatever it was, I knowed it wasn't no good.

“Well, anyway, she told me that she had done tested positive for HIV. She had done caught it from the dude she had livin' with her while I was locked up, my so-called best friend.”

I couldn't help giving him a quizzical look. “Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “So, are you suggesting you didn't have it then?” I asked, puzzled.

“No, I didn't at the time,” he said. He obviously understood the implications of my question, so he explained.

“Sho, I was plenty mad at her, but part of me still loved her in a big way. I felt sorry for her. I could hear the pain and agony in her voice as she fought to tell what was goin' on in her life. I myself had done so much wrong, too, and felt, like me, she needed forgiveness and love, no matter how bad it was. Most eop0le say that I'm a fool or an idiot for that.”

“I don't think so,” I responded. “I certainly feel where you're coming from. Forgiveness and love are on the side of wisdom, not folly.”

“I got out a few months later, determined to go through this with her and take care of her; I took her back. we remained intimate, but always used condoms.

“One night, while in bed together, I was just holding her in my arms, feelin' so distant emotionally. I knowed the pain and isolation she as feeling. I been a reject all my life. I just wanted to show her that I was willing to go through anything with her. So we made love, but this time without condoms.”

“Whoa!” I cut in, emphatically. “You mean to tell me you had raw, unprotected sex with your wife who was HIV positive, just to show her how much you loved her?” I asked in disbelief.

“Yep,” he answered with a straight face. “Sounds kinda stupid, huh?”

“Well, Jessie, it's not the smartest thing I've heard. I mean, intentionally exposing yourself to HIV is not necessarily a mark of unconditional love. Sex can feel good, but I doubt its ability to fill emotional gaps between people, realistically.”

“At the time, like I said,” he continued, “I believed that it was the realist thing I coulda done to rove my love to her, to show her she wasn't goin' through it alone. It was one of the few times we did it like that.”

Some time later, after his first unprotect sexual encounter with his wife, Jessie began to experience persistent symptoms of illness. He finally had to go to the emergency room. One of the symptoms was a perpetual migraine-like headache. They took blood samples from him for extensive lab tests. Three weeks later, he received a call from the local health clinic in

Fort Worth, Texas, where he and his wife had been living.

“A very nice lady called me into her private office and told me the results from my blood work had been sent to her. Before she could say more, I told her I knowed I was HIV positive. And she said it was true.

It wasn't long after that that Jessie's life retur4ned to the same patterns of destruction it h ad before: the drugs, alcohol and hustling. He and his wife separated as her life, too, spiraled downward into drugs and prostitution.

“Man, I began to look awful bad. I was a homeless addict. I had only one goal left in life — to get as high and as drunk as I could. This is how I felt after I found out I was sick, and me and my wife split up. I lost my reason for livin', if I ever had one. I didn't have the nerve to kill myself outright, so I purposed to let the drugs and alcohol do it for me. I had been a fool up to this point; now I was livin' the life of an idiot!”

As he spoke these last words, I began to picture how he must have felt, and wondered how he presently felt. Was Jessie really an idiot? I thought of something Oscar Wilde once wrote, “To test reality, we must see it on a tightrope.” Jessie had chosen the life of an acrobat without a safety net.

In 2007, Jessie's health, as a result of neglect and chronic drug and alcohol abuse, took a dramatic turn fore the worse. The virus along with the aide of his degraded lifestyle took its toll on him.

“I lost so much weight that I looked like a skeleton with skin wrapped around it. I mean, man, I looked like walking death. My eyes was sunken. Even my hair started thinnin' on me. My kinky hair became straight like a newborn baby's hair. I lost all control of my bowels. I would use it on myself unintentionally all the time. Then I stayed so tired and worn out. Couldn't keep no food down.”

Jessie was brought to the emergency room of the local city hospital. An extremely compassionate triage nurse went out of her way to help him, encouraging him to not give up on himself. He was admitted into the hospital's ICU, and diagnosed as having full-blown AIDS.

“I was dying and I knowed it. they had so many tubes running through me, it was a shame. They had tubes to help me breathe, tubes to feed me, and tubes to help me eliminate waste. I even heard the doctor tell the nurse I wasn't gonna make it. they gave me a week to live. I was dying, and dying fast, and you know what, I really didn't care no more. I was ready to get it over with. What good was it for me to live with this stuff killing me anyway?

“One day this man and his wife who I didn't know came in my room. They tried talkin' to me, but I was too weak to respond much of nothin'. They just went on acting like they knowed me or somethin'. I wanted to tell them they musta got me mixed p with someone else. Anyway, they kept telling me I had reasons to life, and before they left, they prayed for me. I kept thinkin' about that they'd said bout reasons to live and not givin' up.

“That night I slept fitfully. I was in so much pain. I didn't think I was gonna live to see the sun come up. But when I woke up in the morning, for some strange reason, I felt good! For some crazy, idiotic reason, I, all of a sudden, wanted to live. I remembered how case workers tried to tell me I could live a long, productive life with HIV as long as I took care of myself. For the first time, I started believin' it myself.

“Well, my crazy behind started yanking tubes out of me left and right, like I was healed or somethin'. This sent alarms off from the machines. People started runnin' in my room from everywhere. They thought I had done died already. They didn't think I was gonna make it anyhow.” He said all of this, giving me a look of excitement, as one eye stared at me and the other found its mark on the wall.

Amazingly, Jessie's health took a miraculous turn for the better, as his T-cell count began climbing back up. The doctors and hospital staff were taken aback by his sudden recovery from being full-blown AIDS. Two weeks later, Jessie was released from the hospital, looking and feeling alive.

“Well, I purposed to start taking care of myself. I try to make sure I takes my medicine like I'm supposed to. In fact, you know what? Before all of this, I really didn't take no never mind about my health. now, I know that how long I will live is depending on how I take care of me.. I even started workin' out and stuff. Look at me, man!” (He flexed his biceps.) “I got muscles! I ain't never had no muscles like this before.,” (Jessie has an impressive physique.)

“I admit that I been strugglin' with my addiction to drugs. Thanks to you, I can admit it to myself today. Now, for the first time in my life, I'm gonna fight back. I'm gonna do whatever I can to increase my chances of leaving that ol' stuff alone for good. I ain't makin' no false promises. I'm sayin' I'm goin' try my best and not give up on myself, even if I fall or stumble, even if everybody else give up on me. You done made me believe in myself. You done inspired me in a lot of ways. You just don't know. You said something the other day that stuck to me.”

“What's that?” I asked.

“Remember when you told me that faith is a radical acceptance of the way life unfolds? You said your faith ain't based on things goin' the way you think they should be any more, but on accepting the way things are. Well, I realize I got HIV. That's a fact. It's not what I want, but that's the way it is. Maybe one day they gonna find a cure, maybe not. But whether they do or don't, I got a responsibility to take care of myself and live to inspire other folks who done gave up on theyselves. Like you said, I want my life, its struggles, ups and down, to be an inspiration for others.”

“And one day I'm gonna die. But ain't that true about everybody? Who ain't gonna die one day? But I'm gonna live my life, from now on, in such a way that people will remember me for the way I lived, not for the way I died.”

There was nothing I needed to say. Jessie had captured the essence all the saints and sages had left behind to inspire us. Although Jessie thanked God for me inspiring him, I was also thankful for him. He had displayed the incredible power of faith that can find happiness in life, despite life, perhaps. Bo Lozoff is right, “Happiness isn't a measure of bad things not happening to you; it's a measure of how you deal with everything that comes down the pike.” Here was Jessie, smiling at me and happy.

My earlier question had now been answered. Jessie, like myself, has made a LOT of foolish choices in life, but the man is certainly NOT an idiot.

A day after Jessie was transferred to a unit closer to the regional medical district in Beaumont (my hometown) for the rest of his three-four year sentence. When he was called out, a sullen, forlorn look of sadness crept across his face.

“Man, you know I don't wanna leave you. I've grown attached to you. But it was God's will we met; now its God's will we part. See, I've learned a lot from you. You the best thing that's happened to me. I ain't never met nobody like you. You crazy… in a good way. I won't ever forget the stuff I done learned in the cell with you.”

I assured him the blessing was mutual. As he departed the cell, on his way to a new adventure, he looked back at me, one eye staring lovingly at me, the other eye off on a course of its own, he cried out, “I love you, brother,” not caring who heard.

I smiled, suppressing a laugh at the humor of his look, and earnestly replied, “Yeah, I love you, too.”

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