Vanessa Place

Excerpt from The Gates

El Paletero had a confession. He’d worked it up over time, then worked it back down, figuring the shapes of it while he waited for whatever, which were a ton of fucking wait. EP’d pulled a li’l bitch for a bunch of punk shit, and things hadn’t worked out, you know, appeal-wise. That was good: appeal-wise. EP made a mental note, and kept walking. When he was out in Chuckawalla, he’d sussed out whole chunks on the yard, circling loose packs of guys, dodging the strays and the spun out, the Nortenos, the Border Bros, the Black, White, Other motherfuckers. No eye contact, P-ace, just keep walking.

He’d first got the notion standing in the Chuckawalla chow line on September 23rd, at 1310, when he spotted the snitch. His snitch, the one that flipped him, ratting him out for a couple of dimes run side by side, meaning the bitch’d bought himself a parole date within what could pass for a life, assuming no ax-ee-dents, planned or otherwise. His snitch, cause the bitch thus belonged to him, i.e., he’d bought & paid for that joto with the dimes taken soon as the man took the stand, he was his, life-4-life, and ain’t nobody’d argue otherwise. Chili con carne, like in what, sixth grade. Some smells never change. Taste do. True. Snitch trying to cop a double scoop, greasing up the hype with the spoon. Bullshat, shrink-rapped. Dude’s’all bobbing his knob, smiling, locking eyes with the twitch in the hair net, other dude dripping red sauce down the ladle, grateful for the show. Any show for Showtime. Still, he saw. Once you fuck a man, you look for him like he’s your mama, cuz he is. Got the rights to life: gave you yours, get take it right back again. Snitch spots EP, EP hawks back, super slow. I got time, man. Nothing but. Death’s a motherfucking surface cut. That’s the first hit, in the neck. No big bleeders, though. Knee-deep’s worse than six feet. You ever stab a guy? Most do it quick, makes sense, the old in&out&on the way, man down, Jose, and you’re already down the line, having ditched the shank and put the hairs in place, smooth inquisitor, that’s what they’d say, and you’d go straight up, puttock, & I make change. But there’s another technique, if you’ve got the big guts, slow & steady, it is, death by peering pressure. Each inch in, another out, look ‘em in the eyes as they go down for the l-o-n-g-e-r count. That’s frozen, that’s ice cream, that’s EP’s specialty and the birth-point of his sobriquet. Time, that’s the point of it, death by degrees, death by inevitability. The slow fade of hope itself and the sudden understanding, that sweet tipping moment when their pupils gape at the infinite present, and the inutility of all memory.

Chuckawalla was a kind of pretty, way out there near Arizona. Shitload of palms, rowed, though, showing some planning, which he did once appreciate. Though EP’s forgotten mo’sly bout the hate of the heat. How the hair on his arms recoiled, and his back shuddered from the chill of the sun. Processed into Pelican Bay about ten shades darker than his jacket photo, baked near-black just by being. All of them were. Go into the visiting room, some body’s mewing about how all women’re white by fair comparison, all them wives, rides, -litas and mamacitas, even the mom what wears the red and black like Xmas sweaters, even in June, cold in her mind like he was from the sun, she kept saying how could you do this to me son, son’s undone, shaking his shaggy knucklehead, I don’t know, ma, I don’t know, he stands to reason, EP figured he was some sort of special needs, but come to find (trustee ships it) that Shaggy’s busted his nut on a score of old ladies, one of them took the licking but didn’t keep on ticking, shit like that, EP thought, dropped too perfect, no art to it whatsoever. Barren summer. Round about then, warden decides to trim to two plug-ins per customer, fellas got to decide between see-through TV and clear radio and transparent CD, or maybe a personal fan, he could play the guitar, classical, or the harmonica, blue, or a combination of the two, turning himself into something else, but at temperatures over one hundred degrees, it’s the freeze that comes first, you choose to see or not to see, dreamboy, and such fell choices up the ante, boredom-wise, substantially, cuz without substantiation, there’s no reason to go on as before. Besides, since they ditched that free book program (he’d gotten through two Laughing Policemans, few vols of Gibbon and Golding’s trans by then, T&C, no shit), few itchy Aryan Bros decided to give clapper what process was due, cld have been stopped, most can, but that’s not entertainment. They blanketed the sob, beat him, and set him afire, sort of a giddyup to his hereafter, skin bubbles before it gets goopy, some patches go black or white, chill-bitten, goosepimpled like it was freezing felt instead of pure heat, the smell sweet, not cafeteria unlike. That’s good, cafeteria unlike. EP missed the red & black Xmas sweater though, she always said hello, and left a shoebox of oatmeal cookies with butterscotch chips at the end of each visit. He’d picked a fan and a coffeepot.

His snitch kept closer watch after that, playing fitful sentry, startling at silence, shaking at shadows. He made sure not to be in the chow line at the same time, or in the same part of that scrub they called the yard, still, it was too easy, his cellie was The Parrot, for his habit of squawking what was said and sitting on other men’s fingers. The Parrot said the snitch was scared, scared he said, and the deal’s dealt then, over & done, that’s a bargain bitter made, scared means the fight’s between your ears & bell’s done rung, you’ve bared throat & split belly in the cranium, your thoughts’re running salted & clear as fear itself, and the sour part of tomorrow coats your thin frightened tongue, for fear, as any dude with a cleft bum can testify, mean’s day’s pinched by the perineum, buddy boy, cuz soon as you think you got something to lose, you do. Like a baby eating chocolate, it’s the taking away that’s the treat of it.

Oatmeal cookies with butterscotch chips are better than good. Once they had potato chip cookies which come dusted with confectioner’s sugar and crunch like crazy. Once there were hermit bars with plumped raisins and a whisper of mace, then marshmallow clouds, melaninized with cheap cocoa powder. Ten days after EP saw his snitch, someone’s old lady brought macadamia nut brittle and ribbon candy, red & green, piped in white, like a grandma would keep on a glass Santa tray for the holidays, flanked with a bright peppermint pig and cracked buttons of Pfeffernüsse. Sweet tongue-tipped patience, drizzling caramel shelled onan, right on right on.

EP bided his time. That was a line from something, though what came too loose to catch. He found a book with a Bic inside, what book, do you remember, not God’s, or any other thin conforming copy, but a water-logged work what changed everything. He lost that pen, copped another, then retrieved the first from the seam siding his mattress and used the small heating coil on the coffeepot to slowly soften the plastic. Super-slow, stopping whenever there was an aroma of something more than apprehension, he was the model of patience, sipping seconds like a hot Swiss Miss, draining hours of their grotesque design, playing divinity, claving days from days into drunken infinity. As the clear plastic starts to curve, remove it from the heat and press it against your thumbnail quick, quickly, not on the floor or wall or the shining silver side of your toilet bowl, hanging legless from the wall, nowhere to leave a mark or smear or the scent of burning. That’s not flesh. Sure it hurts, but better now than later. And if you fuck up and there comes that sour smell, by all means, melt yourself a little bit, that’s copacetic, that passes as payback, one thing no one shits about and everyone wants, freedom, that is, to burn, like in that other Eden, to drown, in a pool of septic eyesell, to stagger, like our Savior, through the walk of the innocent, or at least the not proven to be. And you burn and bide and burn and bide a few hundred times, that’s small exaggeration, man, and not by sensation, for the hot ache in your thumbs turns constant, and like any constancy, becomes your beloved companion. Proof of transcripted peace.

Vanessa Place is a writer and lawyer. She is author of Dies: A Sentence, La Medusa, Notes on Conceptualisms, co-authored with Robert Fitterman, and The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality and Law. Forthcoming is Exposé des Faits (éditions è®e), and the triology, Statement of Facts, Statement of the Case, and Argument (Blanc Press). She is a regular contributor to X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly, and is co-founder/director of Les Figues Press.


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