That Unstable Summer
by Morris Marshall
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Many things happened that first night in custody, but what stands out years later are the bright, piercing floodlights in my cell. They were always on. Great for people who are afraid of the dark. Not so good if you want to sleep. You’re already wired up about being incarcerated, and sleep would provide a temporary respite from reality, but every time you close your eyes, you can still see the image of the lights burning against the back of your eyelids. You toss, turn, and, after repeating the drill for hours, you eventually give up and...
“Why can’t you turn out the lights?” I asked one of attending the officers.
“Because you might kill yourself.”
The next morning, which felt like the same evening, several loud raps sounded on the door to my holding cell. “Get up! Hurry! It’s five-thirty! The court truck will be here in fifteen minutes.” A slot at the bottom of the door opened and a boxed juice and cellophane-wrapped sandwich appeared.
Still wearing my wrinkled clothes from the previous day, I yawned, rubbed my eyes and slowly sat up on the hard rubber bench. I knew that I’d drifted off at various intervals of the night but couldn’t be sure for how long. My eyes stung from the glow of the lights.
Another rap on the door. “Hurry up, Mr. Donnell!”
I ran to the door slot and picked up the box of orange juice. After ramming the plastic straw through the top, I slurped the contents down in one gulp. Then I went for the sandwich. I tore open the cellophane and jammed the soggy pieces of white bread and the processed cheddar cheese slice into my mouth.
While I was gulping down the sandwich, the door swung open. “Time to go,” a voice said.
A middle-aged uniformed cop with a shaved head and a slight paunch slipped the cuffs on me. Without speaking, he directed me out into an isolated courtyard. For the first time, in the early morning light, I realized I was waiting outside the 11th Division police station on Keele and Dundas Streets. Just ten minutes from home by bus. My optometrist’s was across the street.
The white Metro Police Court Van pulled into the courtyard and stopped in front of me. The driver and his partner got out and opened the back door. Dressed in a police uniform, the driver had a shaved head that resembled a bowling ball. There seemed to be no neck between his head and muscular upper body. His partner, in contrast, was tall and thin with bushy black hair.
I peered into the van. Six pairs of eyes stared back at me from the darkness, a conga line of men handcuffed together, sitting on three benches that lined either side of the van.
“You sit here,” the driving guard ordered, attaching my right hand to the left handcuff of the next guy. Then he closed the van’s back doors, shutting out the light.
Several minutes later, the van started up and began moving. Up front, the guards discussed their plans for the upcoming evening and the recent success of the Toronto Blue Jays.
“What did you get arrested for?” the guy next to me asked. He looked as though he hadn’t shaved in a week. His red-and-white plaid shirt was dirty, and the faint smell of alcohol hung on his breath.
“I fired off a gun. How about you?”
The guy sighed. “I hit my wife. I had too much to drink and lost control. I’m Anders, by the way.”
“I’m Jeff. Nice to meet you.” I looked down at my handcuffs. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t shake hands?”
Anders smiled. “Have you ever been in jail before?”
“No. This is my first time and hopefully my last.”
“Well, I’ve been in a few times. If you remember just a few things, you’ll be okay. You’re small, so they’ll probably put you in the hole for protection.”
“Hole?” I asked.
“It means isolation. In some ways, it’s better than being with other people. No one to bully you. But it’s not all roses. Well... you’ll see what I mean.”
The van pulled to a stop and, after a minute, the back doors opened. A ten-foot stone wall surrounding the grounds prevented any view of the outside world. I wondered if we were still in Toronto. We couldn’t have gone far; the drive had lasted less than half an hour.
“Okay, gentlemen, trip’s over,” the fat guard said. “Time to get out.”
The conga line moved from the van to the ground as each person dismounted. It slithered toward the doors of a massive grey building, where several guards waited.
“This way, guys, this way. Come on, we don’t have all day,” a man in a yellow T-shirt yelled. Metro Detention Center appeared in black letters on his left shirt pocket.
Once inside, the guards removed our handcuffs. We lined up single file in the front hallway. Unlike at movie theaters or on public transit, no one was in a hurry to push their way to the front of this line.
The guards began handing out brown plastic bags. As we waited, a couple of young men talked and laughed with each other as though they were hanging out at a party and were catching up on old times.
“The fun’s just about to begin,” a voice said behind me. It was Anders.
I turned around. “What do you mean?”
“Strip!” one of the guards yelled. “Come on, hurry up! Put all your clothes in the bag and hand it to the nearest guard.”
Before I could move, the bulkiest, most muscular man I’d ever seen was standing in front of me. He dwarfed all of the other cops and guards I’d encountered so far. Covered in tattoos, his arms popped out of his Detention Centre T-shirt. Muscles wore blue rubber gloves and his face was fat and red with pimples. I could smell the garlic on his breath from his most recent meal.
“Come on, Red, what are you waiting for? Christmas?”
“Is... isn’t there a separate place where we can change?”
“Hey, get this,” the guard said to a nearby colleague. “Red thinks he’s special.” Then he looked back at me. “This isn’t Club Med, you know. You’re mine now and you do as I say. Put your clothes in the bag!”
Once I was naked, Muscles put on a new pair of rubber gloves and approached me.
“Okay, Red, it’s time for your cavity check. Open your mouth.”
I complied. I’d been to the dentist a few months back, but I was sure that my teeth were still clean and cavity free.
The guard shone a flashlight inside my mouth and poked his fingers around. Once satisfied that there was nothing there except my teeth and tongue, he made a quick note. Then he looked up again. “Spread ‘em.”
“I’m sorry?” I said.
“What are you, slow or something? Spread your butt cheeks! Nice and wide.”
Muscles smiled as he waited for me to move. The rubber gloves felt cold and somewhat slippery as they entered me. Mercifully, it was over quickly. Several guards gathered the rest of the guys, including Anders, into a single holding cell and gave them orange jumpsuits with Metro Detention Centre stencilled in black letters on the back. Muscles placed me in a separate line consisting of only three people.
“Where are we going?” I whispered to the person in front of me.
“You’re going to the hole, Red!” Muscles screamed in my ear. “It’s where we put loonies who try to kill themselves.”
After a complete examination at the medical center, he led us upstairs to the top floor — the Penthouse. Instead of orange jumpsuits, he issued us brown, canvas-like bodysuits that had no loose parts. The suit hugged your body so closely that you couldn’t wriggle out of it. You felt like you were wearing a basket.
A black steel door marked the entrance to the cell, at the top of which was a small square window composed of thick Plexiglas. A narrow slot had been cut into the door about two feet above the ground.
Muscles reached into his front pants pocket, pulled out a key and inserted it in the door lock. There was a click as he turned the key. With another key, he opened my handcuffs and slipped them off. “Okay, Red, inside you go. You better not give me any trouble!”
These days, we complain about the scarcity of time, that there’s too much to do and too little time in which to do it. Prisoners confined to the Hole face the opposite problem. Time is in abundance, but there’s nothing to do. You’re stripped of your humanity. No clothes, few toiletries, and no bed sheets in case you decide to hang yourself.
Such is the life of someone on a suicide watch. I’ve always wondered how notorious mass murderers like Charles Manson or Paul Bernardo could survive in the Hole for years without going completely nuts. Well... it’s not as if they were sane going in.
My cell was four by eight feet and contained only a toilet and concrete slab jutting out of the wall. There was a brown canvas blanket over it, too thick and bulky to be torn. A small, barred window represented my only connection to the outside world and, since we were high up, you couldn’t see anything but blue sky and, at certain times of day, the sun. There was no other point of reference.
I sat down on my bed and rested my head in my hands. It was Sunday afternoon. Court wouldn’t start until Monday morning, so I’d be stuck here at least another twelve hours. My eyesight was blurry. I realized I no longer had my contacts on. They were in a case in the Medical Storage Unit, along with the lithium for my bipolar disorder, which I hadn’t taken in a week. As long as I was sitting here, no problem, but what would happen when it came time to go to court? My thoughts could be racing at two hundred miles an hour by then.
This must be how monks feel, I thought, as the sun disappeared from view and the blue sky outside slowly darkened. When there’s nothing external to focus on, you look inward. How long could I go without talking? What were my parents thinking right now? Did they know where I was? Would my dad be in court on Monday morning? Would he be willing to post bail? Who would represent me in court?
The door slot opened and a small tray appeared containing a cellophane-wrapped cheese sandwich and a boxed grape juice. A guard peered through the window and left.
As the sky outside darkened and the day drained away, the only way to keep track of time was through sounds outside my cell. The comforting voice of a Blue Jays broadcaster on the radio wafted out from the guards’ office, along the corridor to the cells. The Jays were leading Baltimore 5-4 in the top of the fifth and Henke was pitching: one ball and two strikes. Home games usually began at seven. Half the game was finished, so it was probably around eight-thirty.
Every so often, a series of screams punctuated the hallway. “Help me! Help me! Get me out of this place!” Then banging against the steel door. These noises continued at regular intervals through the night. Once I heard the guards scream and open a door. “He’s bashing his head against the wall,” I heard Muscles yell. “Look at all that blood. We’d better get him to the hospital.”
That could be you in a few days, if you don’t get your medication, a voice in my mind taunted. Who knows how long that guy’s been here?
“God,” I whispered as I lay on the concrete slab and pulled the blanket up around my face, “please show yourself to me if you exist. I really need your help now.”
In the middle of the chaos, stripped of all my clothes and dignity, I felt warm and inexplicably calm, as though someone had wrapped their arms around me and hugged me tightly. I yawned and quickly drifted into a deep and blissful sleep.
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Copyright © 2016 by Morris Marshall