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Unread 09-03-2021, 11:38 AM
John Riley John Riley is online now
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: North Carolina
Posts: 4,932
Default Three about prison



The next winter the house burned down. The summer before Bobby lived with us. He was short with a thick mustache and big muscles and didn't like wearing a shirt in the heat. He showed me how to make a belt snap by looping the end to the buckle and jerking it from both sides. It's trickier than it sounds when you're a little kid. You'd catch a finger if you weren't careful and have to worry about crying. I walked around snapping his belt until she yelled at me to please for God's sake please stop. “I can't take it anymore,” she said. He did card tricks too but wouldn't show me how they worked. I could figure them out when I grew up. The first day he wasn't there I kept my mouth shut. The next day I asked where he'd gone. “Back to where he came from,” she said.

Boss of Bosses

The one thing my father told me that I want to believe is that when he served his time at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary he had the honor of being housed in a cell block with Don Vito Genovese, the mafia kingpin who ran the Greenwich Village Crew when he was a young man and rose to become the boss of New York City. While in prison Genovese put a contract out on Joe Valachi, who he suspected of being a snitch, and Valachi turned to the FBI for help. He spilled his guts to the feds and later testified before Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Valachi's testimony was the first public acknowledgment by an active member that the Mafia existed. The entire Valachi episode was later made into a book written by the hard-drinking New York-based writer Peter Maas, and then became a major Hollywood movie. The role of Genovese was played by the beloved French actor Lino Ventura. My father's bourbon and water tinted jaw would clench and his yellow eyes would shuffle toward the corner of the room when he told me what it was like to see the old gangster sitting alone in a six by eight cell stacked full of cigarettes and all sorts of contraband, and how when he put on his black suit to go to trial—much of the Don's time was spent with lawyers—he looked like a new widower on his way to his wife's funeral. There was pride in his walk, my father said, and on Sundays, he always had more visitors than he was allowed to see. I know that Genovese finally ran out of appeals and died in prison in 1969; I don't know if my father told the truth about serving time with him. His word was no man's bond. A forgerer, lying was more than second nature. It was an essential part of the job.

Building Time

Nights I slept in a cell, days collected trash along the interstate. My one buddy was Vic Allred who, while drunk, had beat his friend to death with a pool cue. He never told me why. Vic was a model prisoner. I'd sold pot to Deputy Leonard and was no danger to anyone. Vic liked to talk about the books he read and swore he'd never take up religion. We agreed I had no business there. He promised to protect me this go-round but said he would rape me himself if I ever came back. Not much happened during my eight months. I learned to sleep beneath yellow lights, to not decipher whispers. I helped guys write letters home and read The Plague, George Jackson, Dostoevsky, The Lady with a Little Dog and Other Stories in the Penguin edition and discovered Yeats and slept with his selected beneath my pillow. There were others, whatever my mother brought me on Sundays. I believed in dialectical materialism, tried to not think about my release date. I don't remember much more. My girlfriend changed while I was away. College the next year was sweet and wild; I decided to major in History of Ideas. After five years my record was expunged. One morning years later I read in the newspaper that Vic had escaped and held up a drug store with a stolen gun.
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Unread 09-03-2021, 01:14 PM
RCL's Avatar
RCL RCL is offline
Join Date: Oct 2000
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Posts: 6,023

John, I like prison stories and these are, in order, sad, amusing, and amazing. It reminds me that I have yet to write about two instances where escapees (including Crazy Jack) from prison intruded on my otherwise protected world. All three of yours feel authentic to me.
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Unread 09-03-2021, 02:09 PM
John Riley John Riley is online now
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: North Carolina
Posts: 4,932

Thanks, Ralph. I appreciate what you say about authenticity. I’ll fess up that each one is from my life. My father was a crook and bigamist and alcoholic and I did go to jail at eighteen for selling half an ounce of pot. They pulled me out of my first year of college to make an example. That’s what happen in America when you can’t afford a good lawyer. I feel good that is coming through. Best.
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Unread 09-03-2021, 08:21 PM
Jim Ramsey Jim Ramsey is offline
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Join Date: Jan 2021
Location: Greensboro, NC
Posts: 69

Hi John,

This is a nice triptych. Two sounds the most like memoire. One and three make for the best fiction. I'd like the "she" pronoun in One to have a reference. Otherwise. no suggestions.

All the best,
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Unread 09-04-2021, 01:07 PM
John Riley John Riley is online now
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Thanks, Jim. Good suggestions I will consider.
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Unread 09-05-2021, 08:01 AM
Jim Moonan Jim Moonan is offline
Join Date: Aug 2016
Location: Boston, MA
Posts: 3,128

I like them too. I had assumed "she" was the narrator's mother. I'm not so sure who Bobby was.

Testimony is a curious title to me at the moment but I am certain it has to do with me. I've only read through the group once. That usually only gives me a sense of readability and arch. I have some trouble orienting the time line in the opening two sentences. There is a future year and a past year and a winter and a summer and I just get all tangled up in understanding exactly where the story lands. Just me being thick again, I think. But perhaps it could be phrased in a more clear way. The trick with the belt-tightening is fascinating. It reminds me of when I used to go around the house holding my belt in a loop and snapping it tight to make a sharp thwacking sound that drove everyone in the house mad. But in your short piece there is something ominous at play.
My brother Davey, though never jailed, lived on the skids in Trenton, NJ all his adult life coping with his addictions and sucking what little life was left in my mother after my father's violent temper got most of her. My point is, I tried at one point after my mother dropped dead at work (Davey was living with her), to bring him up to Boston to live with us and get his life straightened out. My only condition was that he not be drunk in front of the kids. As it turned out, he was always drunk, even when I didn't detect it. Our young kids thought he was a riot. He taught them how to spell his name in burps, regaled them with stories of our childhood, and gave them non-stop shoulder rides everywhere we went. We set up a room for him in the cellar, just off the playroom. One day about a month or two into his stay our youngest came upstairs holding a nip of whiskey in each hand. We just had to let him go... I drove him back down to Jersey and we lost touch as he moved through shelters, hospitals, train stations, etc.

"Testimony" made me think of him. We reunited years later when he called me from a rehab place he was living in, having kicked drinking, in his middle fifties, with stage 4 cancer. We stayed close until he died a couple of years ago. I drove down to Jersey every month or so (sometimes the kids, now ten + years older, would come down with me. They loved him) and would take him on a shopping spree at Walmart. I never felt more appreciated in my life. He was a good man.

Would you consider expanding on these so that they each become bonafide short stories?

I'll come back to comment on the other two.

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Unread 09-06-2021, 03:07 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 5,647

Hi John,

For me, pretty much what Jim said, though in general, I think you have a good thread here. I and III resonate the most for me, though I love the ending of II, with how a forger works. I think your lamb poem is also weird and lovely - my favorite work of yours remains your short prose pieces. They are fresh and inhabited and new.

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Unread 09-10-2021, 09:32 AM
Rob Wright Rob Wright is offline
Join Date: Sep 2007
Location: Philadelphia PA, U.S.A.
Posts: 886


Strong work. They ring true in every respect. I like the trick of developing a story (in Boss of Bosses) only to have doubt thrown on the story with the reliability of the source. And the question, "Who is the Boss of Bosses" suggests, at least to me, the tall tale. He's not any punk, he's the Kingpin. Wonderful. I agree that I would like to have "she" identified at least when first mentioned. And I think you might keep the tense in pluperfect throughout. "I'd" instead of "I" in Testimony. I think the last of the trio is magnificent. I like how Vic, the model-prisoner escapes and holds up a store at gunpoint. As for expanding them, I think they stand well as they are, tight and compact. Good work
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