Danny James was a short, wiry, good-natured convict with a handlebar mustache and a marine haircut. At forty-six he started losing weight and having trouble with his coordination. After a plague of tests, the doctor told him that he had Lou Gehrig’s disease and that it was terminal. He had six months to live. Danny ignored the traditional stages experienced by dying men and went straight to a weary anger that kept him going. Well, it was anger, candy, and cigarettes that kept him alive. No counseling, no support group. The state gave Danny morphine, as much as he wanted, to sedate him and help with the sudden, frightening pain in his hands, feet, and neck. He’d been in prison for twenty-one years for a brutal murder, sentenced to life with an infinitesimal chance of parole. His family no longer wrote or visited.
The state bounced Danny around from prison to prison as he lost thirty pounds and much of the mobility in his hands and feet, which painfully curled up. He finally landed at California Men’s Colony, where I’m an inmate, and quickly gained notoriety on the yard for his morphine prescription of 360 milligrams a day, enough to kill the garden-variety pain of two people for a week: a new record and a source of fascination to the local junkies.
I encountered Danny through Pat, a slight white-boy hustler who lived with a six-foot-seven black queen. Pat owed me two jars of coffee (value twelve dollars) for having typed his hopeless legal briefs, and he’d somehow hectored Danny into paying the debt. I was hesitant to accept.
“Why in the hell are you paying Pat’s debt?” I asked Danny.
“I knew him at Pelican Bay,” Danny said, mush-mouthed, fighting his ruined tongue, one of the first muscles to go with Lou Gehrig’s disease. I struggled to understand him.
“Do you owe him money?” I asked.
“No, we were friends at —”
“Yeah, yeah, I got that.” When you’ve been down a good while, people you’ve met at other joints take the place of family. “But are you sure you’re cool with this?” I felt bad about this obviously sick man paying another convict’s debt. On the other hand, I wanted my money.
“That’s OK, I can afford it. I got it like that. I’m going to be dead pretty soon, anyway,” he said, cheerily resigned, though I detected a touch of anger at someone.
“Come on, now,” I said. “Think positive.”
“Nope, I’m done for,” Danny insisted.
“I’m telling you, positive thinking accomplishes miracles.” I say this a lot, even though I am in prison.
I was drawn to Danny. I don’t know why. I’d never known anyone who’d been given a fatal prognosis like his. That he refused to fight or deny it seemed noteworthy somehow.
I later found out that Danny was selling his morphine to the local drug addicts in order to buy sodas, cigarettes, and candy. Pat wasn’t the only one hustling him. A couple of lowlifes pressured him to lend them money daily. With his garbled speech, the predators assumed Danny was mentally handicapped, a crippled man with resources and therefore ripe for the plucking. Danny’s cellie, Whitney, was one of the worst offenders. He had a shaved head and was covered with tattoos of skulls, demons, large-breasted women, and dragons.
There are few ideal cellies on our yard, which is inhabited by people who are either on psych meds, gender confused, or terminal. I ended up here because I take fifteen milligrams of Remeron, supposedly for anxiety. I told the psychiatrists, “Of course I’m anxious. I’m worried about the people who aren’t anxious.” But, eight years into my twenty-two-year sentence (for having robbed banks with a toy gun), I’d decided to keep taking the Remeron because people on psych meds aren’t allowed to be sent to one of the desert prisons. I think of it as antidesert medication.
Danny often complained about Whitney while we played dominoes on the yard: Whitney kicked him out of the cell whenever he wanted privacy. He wouldn’t let Danny smoke in the cell and wouldn’t use an earphone on his TV — a big issue in a cramped space with two televisions. At California Men’s Colony we live in the worst cells in the state. During the day one of the bunks in each cell has to be pushed up and secured to the wall with chains, like in a cartoon. It’s called an “X-bed” (short for “extra bed”). Whitney had forced Danny into the X-bed, which meant Danny couldn’t lie down between the hours of 6:30 A.M. and 8 P.M. Another of the X-bed’s many drawbacks is that the toilet is barely three feet from your head when you’re sleeping.
I was unhappy with my cellmate, Skipper, a bipolar kitchen worker with anger issues and bowel disorders, so Danny touched on the idea of our becoming cellies. But my cell was on the second floor, and Danny had to live on the first floor because of his limited mobility. And I couldn’t move in with him, because Whitney refused to move out.
We talked about this particular problem on the yard one night while playing dominoes against our usual adversaries, Czech and Sorrow. The four of us gossiped, made up rumors, and talked shit nonstop to keep warm on the cold November evening.
“Twenty-five points! Thanks for the setup, bitch,” crowed Czech.
“Fuck you,” Danny growled happily. “That was blind luck.”
“Hey, idiots, quit your bullshit and drop a bone. Play the game!” Sorrow said.
“Whose turn is it?” I asked.
“Yours!” everyone yelled.
Danny cursed, accused, and threatened our opponents with damnation and defeat while fingering his dominoes as if they were ancient bones that could tell the future; his hands, little more than a collection of bones themselves, caressed each domino lovingly. He always played exactly right, setting his foes up for disaster, and he would cackle and berate everyone with his broken tongue, including me, his partner. Though it violated protocol, he demanded to mix the dominoes up before each hand, pushing them in complicated circles for longer than necessary until we rudely cursed him, which he enjoyed. We let the dying man perform his drawn-out ritual. Benedicamus Domino (Let us bless the Lord).
Danny continued to complain about Whitney, who hung out with our yard’s skinhead crew. Sorrow was one of the leaders of the skinheads, and when Danny said that Whitney wouldn’t move out, Sorrow replied, “We’ll see about that.”
Whitney heard about our plan through yard gossip and sat next to me the next day at chow. “You don’t want to move in with Danny,” he told me. “He’s nothing but trouble. I have to tie his shoes for him and make him shower. He stinks like cigarettes and smokes pot. Every day I have to remind him to get his meds. He eats his meals in the cell, he’s ungrateful, and you won’t be sleeping, because he moans and groans and mutters all night long. I have to wake him up three or four times a night.” Whitney clenched his fists and turned red at the thoughts rattling in his head.
“Why?” I asked, even though, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in prison, it’s to let angry people wind down and not to question them.
Whitney stared at me, confused that I’d interrupted the flow of his bile and discontent. “Why what?”
“Why do you wake up a guy who is dying every night?”
“So I can sleep. It’s annoying.”
“Danny snores so loud you can’t sleep?”
“No! Aren’t you listening? He makes weird noises, humming and moaning all night. It’s annoying, and you don’t want to move in with him. End of story.”
“If Danny is so much trouble,” I said, “why do you want to stay in a cell with him?”
“Because moving’s a hassle,” Whitney said.
“Look,” I said, “if you want to make the crippled guy move, he and I will find another cell. Do what you have to do. Let me know by tomorrow.”
The next day one of Danny’s neighbors told me that Whitney stole a bunch of Danny’s groceries. All I had to do was drop this information on Sorrow, and he and the skinheads would have felt obliged to get rid of Whitney one way or another, because the skinheads have sworn to protect older or helpless white convicts. But for some reason Danny begged me not to let anybody know about Whitney’s stealing.
It didn’t matter: Whitney decided to move out. He found a newly arrived inmate in another building, which was his only choice, since his reputation as a rude lunatic was known throughout the prison. And so, even though I’d learned over and over that taking on someone else’s troubles can be the last few crumbs of burden that bring the whole thing crashing down, I moved in with Danny.
Most mornings Danny stayed in and watched reruns: The A-Team, Ironside, The Incredible Hulk, Charlie’s Angels, Knight Rider. On the weekend he would indulge in an entire day of old cowboy programs: Wagon Train, Rawhide, Laredo, The Virginian, Alias Smith and Jones. He hit the yard occasionally to buy cigarettes, then hustled back to the cell to use his breathing machine. Every evening he broke out the bones, and we played dominoes, sometimes till two in the morning. He complained about my constant typing, but I’d warned him about it before I moved in, and memories of Whitney kept his grumbling to a minimum.
Danny gagged when he ate, but that didn’t annoy me. I’d raised two sons and helped my sister and brother raise a half dozen of their kids, so nothing short of projectile vomiting bothers me. I didn’t really like that Danny smoked cigarettes in the cell, but he stood on the toilet and blew the smoke out the window while I watched for the C.O.s (corrections officers), who will tear the cell apart if they catch anyone with tobacco. Besides being grounds for a write-up or a trip to the hole, cigarettes are god-awful expensive. A skinny hand-rolled one costs three dollars, and Danny bought seven or eight every day, bartering, selling his meds, and racking up debts. His smoking was also annoying because people kept coming by looking to sell him cigarettes while I was trying to write. When I’d bring it up to Danny, he would mournfully complain, “But I’m dyin’.” More often than not his ploy worked. One time, though, I responded, “I don’t care. I’ll end it all right now,” and I feigned an attempt to smother him with a pillow.
“No, you won’t,” Danny said, and he put up his scrawny fists, and we scuffled. He was a lot stronger than I expected and tried to smother me.
Whitney had been right about one thing: Danny did make noises. At night he exhaled an entire symphony of sounds like I’d never heard from one human being. He claimed never to sleep through the night. The TV was on from 6:30 A.M. until well after midnight. Sometimes I’d wake at three in the morning to find him watching an infomercial in a half-nodding state, because of the morphine. But if I turned off the TV, he’d wake up and complain. When Danny finally went into a deep nod, he’d mutter and sigh and make conversational sounds like “Ohhhh,” as if he’d just understood a heartfelt point. Or he’d grunt assent, as if eating a favorite food. Or he’d growl and gurgle lyrical nonsense. Mixed with these loquacious noises were the kinds of gasps and moans you might hear from an amorous couple quietly having sex. And there was a lot of “Hmmm” over and over, like a biological engine performing some act of maintenance.
My first week in the cell, I thought some of these murmurs were meant for me, and I’d say, “What?” or, “Huh?” but none of it was for anyone. Danny was gearing down, letting the morphine give him a glimpse of a sweet, strange afterlife to come. It was as if he had one metaphysical foot on the other side, where he was asking questions and getting answers, yet still wondering.
Sometimes Danny would suddenly sit up and ask, “Was I making noises?” and I’d tell him I hadn’t heard anything. His repertoire of sounds was no more annoying to me than a distant dog barking or a far-off train. I’d often wear headphones and listen to whatever demented university radio station I could find to drown out the prison noises: yelling, cell doors slamming, voices over loudspeakers, laughter (more than you might expect), and my own thoughts.
Danny kept telling me he was going to die any day, even as he went around chasing cigarettes, playing dominoes, and talking trash with the best of them. The longer I was in the cell with Danny, the less I believed that his death was imminent. I read up on Lou Gehrig’s disease and learned that the scientist Stephen Hawking has had it for decades. I tried to get Danny to push for better medical help, to improve his diet, and maybe even to slow down on the nicotine, but he would have none of it.
“Danny, you could live for years.”
“My doctor says I don’t have six months.”
“He said that two years ago!”
“I can tell that I’ve only got a little time left.”
“That’s because of your strict diet of nicotine and sugar.”
“Oh, yeah, that reminds me: We gotta hit the yard. Gino has some fat cigarettes.”
“Listen, you don’t want to die, right?” I asked.
“I want to enjoy what time I got left.” His favorite comeback.
“So, you figure, what? How much time do you have?”
“A month or two. And I want to enjoy it. And I need a cigarette — right now.”
I recognized his longing for nicotine. It was the same one I’d felt for heroin. I tried another approach: “You could look at this as an adventure.”
“I’m forty-eight. I don’t want an adventure,” Danny said, getting mad.
“I’m sorry, Danny. I don’t know what to do. You can fight this if you want and live a lot longer. But if you want to die, I respect that. Tell me what you want.”
“I want a cigarette,” he enunciated carefully, as if I were an idiot, which I was.
Danny began to spend more time in bed, skipping our dominoes games on the yard two or three times a week, even skipping lunch and dinner. He would be active for three or four days, then down for a week. He ate little except for ice cream and candy and sweet cereal, and he developed a deep, frightening cough. If I was so rash as to suggest that maybe he should cut down on the cigarettes, he cursed the notion. He received packages in the mail from friends once a month or so, and proceeds from the sale of the contents kept him in sweets and cereal, but more and more he had to sell his morphine to buy cigarettes, because all he cared about was smoking.
Any conversation with Danny about the future ended with his talking about death. Once I carefully asked about his views on the afterlife, and he said that he was a Christian, which surprised me, because he spent his Sundays watching cowboy shows on TV. When I asked why he didn’t go to church, he said he didn’t like “a lot of the people” there, meaning the blacks, who he said are always shouting and singing their praise to God.
The skinhead and Aryan gangs make the rules for white inmates here, and in harder prisons they run things completely. If I don’t do anything to anger them, they leave me alone and sometimes stick up for me. Men who never had a racist thought on the outside adopt new attitudes and get swastika tattoos in prison. Having been incarcerated half his life, Danny talked a good racist game and made offensive jokes and dropped casual slurs. One time he made a crack about Martin Luther King Day, and, though I’m not a Christian, I told him he wouldn’t get into heaven spewing that racist bullshit. “You should let go of the hate this fucking place has filled your head with,” I said. “You damage your alleged eternal soul by spewing hate against blacks.”
Danny looked baffled and hurt. In his view he’d said nothing wrong. There is quite simply no talking to a white guy in prison about racism, but I tried with Danny. Maybe I did want to save his soul, whether I believed in salvation or not. The state and the universe had positioned me as the only person who could shepherd Danny, who was in prison for beating a man to death with a fire extinguisher. Danny claimed the man was a homosexual who’d been forcing his attentions on him, but he also admitted to being high on methamphetamine at the time. After the murder Danny — the opposite of a criminal genius — drove around in the dead man’s van and used the dead man’s credit cards until he got arrested. His life as a free man had been destroyed by drugs, and he’d been indoctrinated by racists in prison, but he said he loved Jesus. He appeared scared and angry and had no one but me to talk to about passing on. I knew if I were dying, I’d want to discuss it with someone. So I asked Danny, “What do you think is going to happen after you die?”
“I’ll be in heaven with Jesus.”
“How long have you been a Christian?”
“I don’t know, a long time.”
“Was there a turning point in your life when you accepted Jesus Christ into your heart?” I’m interested in spiritual conversions.
“I don’t know,” Danny said. He didn’t seem to care.
“I think there’s a good chance that reincarnation is real,” I said. “Do you think maybe God gives some people a second chance?” I was trying to get a rise out of him. It works with most Christians. I personally believe in everything and nothing.
“Whatever. I doubt it. I’m gonna watch TV.”
“Danny, you do know that God loves you, right?”
“Man, can’t I watch TV in peace?” he yelled. “I’m going out to find a cigarette, and then I’m gonna watch Dragnet.” He tried to storm out of the cell but couldn’t get the door open because of his crippled hands. I had to let him out.
Out of the blue Danny got an order to pack up all his belongings. The state, in its finite wisdom, had decided to ship him to a nonmedical facility in the desert. In a panic Danny made an appointment with his doctor to request a medical hold that would allow him to stay. I went with him to interpret, because I was the only one who could understand his speech. I also wanted to talk to the doctor about Danny’s choking cough. He and I were both spitting up yellow sputum, but it was much worse for him. He was having trouble breathing.
All Danny cared about, however, was getting a medical hold. Even a healthy convict hates moving from one prison to another. They wake you at four in the morning, dress you in an orange paper jumpsuit, shackle your legs and arms, and leave you in a cold, dirty holding pen for hours. Depending on your final destination, the trip can take from one to four days, with overnight stays in foul cells. Danny claimed that a move would kill him — not much of an exaggeration. His biggest worry, of course, was that he would have no tobacco while riding around California in a prison bus.
The doctor said that Danny and I both had bronchitis. When I suggested that he put Danny on antibiotics, he asked me to leave the room because I was obviously not a physician. Meanwhile Danny kept pulling on my shirt, insisting that I ask about his medical hold.
That doctor wouldn’t issue a medical hold, so we made another appointment with a different doctor, who also declined. We went from doctor to uncaring doctor. Sometimes we’d have to wait a long time in the reception area. After a couple of hours Danny would get impatient and tell me he was “niccin’ ” (craving nicotine). He’d go to the front desk to attest that he was “refusing treatment.” He’d stand at the desk and tell the medical C.O., “I refuse,” in his choked, strangled voice. It took him about five tries to make himself understood, but they were always happy to take him off the overloaded schedule. Then we’d go back to the cell so he could smoke a cigarette. I finally breached convict code and wrote his doctor several notes, spelling out exactly what was happening: that Danny was smoking himself to death. No reply. I don’t blame the doctors; they have about nine hundred patients each.
Finally Danny was down to seventy-five pounds and didn’t even eat much candy anymore. When I hadn’t seen him eat for a couple of days, I made him a bowl of Cap’n Crunch. Sweet cereal is precious and hard to come by in prison. Danny ate two bites and threw the rest away. But somehow he could drag himself over to the window to smoke one of his beloved cigarettes. He was smoking about ten a day and having more trouble than ever breathing. His cough was scary, as if he were going to bring up dusty blood. He woke me up several times a night, asking me to roll and light his cigarettes. One day I refused to help him buy smokes on the yard, and he got ripped off: someone sold him pencil shavings rolled up in cigarette paper. He couldn’t catch his breath and claimed he hadn’t slept for three days straight because every time he dozed off, he started to choke.
I wasn’t getting much more than two or three hours a night myself. With his eyes closed Danny looked like a corpse. He refused to go to the hospital, saying the doctors would kill him. I figured they’d give him some antibiotics, and he’d be forced to take a break from the cigarettes long enough to make a comeback. Finally I convinced him to get an emergency hospital pass from our floor C.O. The nurses put him in a wheelchair and rolled him into the ward on the second floor, and I went back to the cell and got a good night’s sleep, secure in the notion that Danny would soon get better. I woke up at noon, went to lunch, and told all the cigarette sellers that I did not need any, God damn it.
Later that afternoon my automatic cell door whooshed open, and our C.O. yelled, “Wood! Come get your cellie!”
Danny had been brought over in a wheelchair from medical and left at the podium at the far end of the building. I literally had to hold him up as he staggered down the hall to our cell, where he collapsed on the bed.
“Dude, what happened?” I asked. “What did the doctor say?”
“Not much. Where’s my smokes?”
“I don’t know. Did you get any sleep?”
“No. I’m niccin’ like a chicken.” He lurched up from the bunk and started digging through a pile of letters, where he hid his tobacco. “Here it is. Talk after you roll me one, please.” He gave me that tortured I’m gonna die and all I want is a smoke look. I rolled him a cigarette.
I found out later that Danny had started pestering the nurses to release him at six that morning, insisting that he felt better.
“Look, I’m going to get you another pass to the hospital soon,” I said.
“No,” Danny said, as forcefully as he could manage.
“But, Danny —”
“No,” a little weaker. “Please light the cig.”
So I did.
After dinner I talked him into taking his morphine instead of selling it, and he spent a fitful night coughing, catching a nod here and there, and having his moaning conversations with whomever he met in that unseen place he went to. He came to a dozen times, looking around wildly and gasping for breath, surprised to be back in our cell. Unable to sleep, I sat on my bunk and rubbed his shoulder.
Danny woke me at 5 A.M. because he was out of tobacco. When the door popped open at 6:30 A.M. for chow, we left. Danny could hardly stay on his feet and leaned on both me and his cane. We headed for the pill line first: a good hundred-yard walk. The medical rule on this yard is, if you can walk to the pill line and back, you’re OK. If you can’t, they put you in the hospital. Danny was so wasted that he bent over and rested his head on the counter while the nurse got his morphine. I wondered if she would notice his condition, but she was more concerned with making sure he didn’t “cheek” his medication to sell it or stockpile it. (When people overdose, it reflects poorly on the prison.) The nurse demanded that Danny stand up straight. She wanted to see him put the pills in his mouth and even gave him a tongue depressor to push his lips back so she could make sure that he swallowed them.
After he’d taken his meds, Danny got a cigarette from a dealer on credit. As we headed back to the cell, one of the C.O.s asked us to hold up. Danny collapsed on a bench, and I sat next to him.
“What’s going on? Is he all right?” the C.O. asked, sort of friendly.
“He just got out of the hospital,” I said. “He’s not doing too good.”
“You OK, old-timer?” the C.O. said. Danny looked about thirty years older than he was.
“Just going back to the pad,” Danny said. Even I could hardly understand him.
“What did he say?” the C.O. asked me, and I told him.
The C.O. gazed at Danny pensively, then talked into his little collar microphone: “C Yard down, medical.”
Danny tried to stand up with the idea of going to the cell to smoke his cigarette.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” the C.O. said. “Hold on, partner. Stay put. I think they need to check you out over at the hospital. Your ride is on its way.”
The loudspeaker announced that it was “yard down,” and every single inmate, about six hundred of us, had to sit wherever he was. Three or four more C.O.s ambled over to wait with us for the ambulance. Danny asked me to talk them out of this, but they weren’t listening. He put his head in his hands, the picture of defeat. Or maybe he was praying. I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything.
The gate swung open, and the ambulance pulled up to our little crowd. Crows squawked and flew over to the dumpsters. Danny suddenly stood up, the only inmate standing on the yard, and said, “I refuse.” He tried to amble crookedly off toward our building, but one of the C.O.s gently grabbed him by one arm, and the ambulance driver took the other. “I refuse!” Danny said as they put him in the ambulance.
“I’ll see you in a day or two, Danny,” I said.
He never came back.
One particular moment with Danny is burned into my memory: About three hours into the new year, I woke up and found the cell empty. This was impossible: the bars are electronically thrown and stay in place from eight-thirty at night until six in the morning. “Danny?” I called, and I heard a peculiar rustling sound under my bed. We have mice, but this was too big for a mouse. I lay on my belly to look under the bed, and against all common sense there he was, curled around the boxes and shoes and other junk.
“Danny? What in the hell are you doing under there?”
“Trying to find something,” he mumbled, evidently still drunk from the New Year’s moonshine one of his buddies had given him.
“At three in the morning? What are you looking for?”
“A butt,” he said sheepishly.
Turned out he’d been trying to light his last half cigarette by the window and had dropped it in the toilet. He’d put it by the fan to dry out, and the wind had blown it under the bunk. He’d been under there for fifteen minutes.
“I think I’m stuck,” he said.
I pulled the X-bed up and helped Danny to his feet. Then I found the cigarette butt in one of my shoes.
“Happy New Year,” he said in his crippled voice.
We both started laughing at the same time. We laughed until Danny started choking, and then we laughed at that. We laughed at death’s slender hold.