From the Iowa Prison Writing Project
Today I’m in my mid-forties...
I can honestly say that I don’t really know where it is that I’m from anymore. It seems I’ve been everywhere at some point. But it also seems that I’ve never really stayed anywhere long enough to be considered to be ‘from,’ there... well all except prison that is. I’ve been here a really, really long time.
I was born in Pomona, California to a wild, hippy family that definitely resisted social conformity. As a youth I lived all over California, willing or not. I was sent up north, down south, most definitely out east, and often threatened to be thrown into the ocean west of us. My memories of all these places lay vivid in my mind. Wild tales and adventures that often scared the crap out of me while I lived them, but for some reason people seem to smile when I retell them.
Believe it or not what I’m about to say is all true. Even if it is often more unbelievable than fiction.
Well, like I said, I was born in Pomona, California, the birth place of me, Ben... and all I have is one memory from the place. You would think it would have a bit more significance than that to me, being ‘where I came from’ and all.
I was like eleven, or near to it anyways, and my Mom (whose name is Mom...) came into the living room looking a very noticeable shade of dark-yellow. She told me that she thought, or at least was pretty sure that she was having a heart-attack. And just by looking at her I was forced to agree with her, she did look like she was pretty sure that she was having a heart-attack. At this point in my life I hadn’t ever really seen someone have an actual heart-attack, that was in real life and not on TV. But she really did look convincing. “So what are we going to do? You want me to, like call someone... 911 or something?” I had to ask, not really sure what the correct response was for the situation I found myself in, (sleeping in health class does not prepare you for this!) But it being my first time apparently watching my Mom die and all, it really felt as if some sort of action was required of me.
“No!” She answered and grabbed at her chest with one hand while bracing herself against the wall with the other in obvious discomfort.
“Okay” I quickly agreed since time seemed to be of the essence. I shrugged at her in a ‘you 're the boss, so what now then,’ helpless manner.
“I think I want you to drive me to the hospital,” She ground out at me between her teeth.
Now remember, at the time I was a moody pre-teen of the eighties with a questionable ethical up-bringing. I basically couldn’t resist myself with an obnoxious answer.
You see, not even an hour before her very dramatic entrance into the living room. Me and my Mom had been in the kitchen in a pretty good shouting match on whether or not we had enough gas in the car for her to drive me to a friend’s house. Apparently at that time we did not. Soooo, as she now stood there clutching her chest. I might have said something along the lines of, “O-so now we got enough gas in the car all of the sudden.” Yeah, that’s right I was kind of an ass as a kid!
“Shut-up and grab my purse!” She winced at me and slowly used our living-room furnishings to make her way to the door.
“But I don't even have a license,” I whined to her in a,‘is this still really happening, sort of way. ’ But it was also really true I didn’t have a driver’s license. Something that she very much liked to point out and repeatedly rub in my face in all of our other non-apparent heart-attack conversations.
“BEN-JAM-IN! MICHEAL!” she shouted at me. Yep it was my first and middle-name, what else could I do? (By the way, just in case you were wondering. My first name really is pronounced, ben-jam-in, not ben-greman, not ben-jha-men, and most certainly not ben-ha-meem. It’s Ben-Jam-In, like the Bob Marley song. Like I said, a questionable upbringing and all that...)
“Fine” I sighed out in clear defeat to the mother-usage of my full name. I grabbed her purse. Then even though I was pretty sure that she was going to smack me; she had just used the whole name after all. I went to her when she ordered me to help her down the porch steps and to the car. For the record here - I was right, she did smack me just as soon as I was within arms’ reach.
Now, at this point in my life, I’ve never actually driven a real car before. Well, not on an actual road with signs, laws, and cops to enforce them or anything. There was a friend of the family who let me grind and beat the heck out of one of his old pick-me-up trucks he kept in his super big backyard. Other than that, my driving abilities had then consisted of the same things every other eleven-year-old’s would have: bumper-cars and go-carts. And I would like to add I was indeed very talented at both of these. Unfortunately, I was also pretty sure that none of my previous driving talents were going to count in this case. But on the other very relevant hand, I had at the time seen enough Pauly Shore-type-movies to know the ‘gist’ of how I was supposed to drive a real car on real roads with real rules, for real! So, right off, I started to adjust the seat, the mirrors, the radio...
"ARE YOU KIDDING ME!" Just drive the freaking car!” she demanded in a really mean tone of voice that did nothing at all to instill the obvious confidence in me that I was needing at the moment. ‘Parents. ' So, now I was all really nervous and obviously alone with it, ‘great!’ With the shakes in my hands I dug around in my Mom’s pit of purse and eventually swam my way through it enough to find her key chain. Which I would just like to add, could have been used as a small sailing vessel’s anchor. I knew what our car key looked like. I literally had seen it every single day... so that was like a million times in my life or something, ‘sleeping in math class will teach you that.’ Heck, I had even used the stupid things in the car’s ignition before to drain the cars crummy battery listing to the radio. Which I would like to add at this time that any admissions of offense that might bring up past neglected punishments; the statute of limitations for them is way expired! Anyways, I had to find one single stupid key, that I knew, out of like thirty of forty all mixed in with the ton or so of other crazy crap attached to her keys, and well just then, with my shaky nervous hands, I wasn’t having an easy time of it.
“O-never mind”, I’ll just die. I guess!” my Mom either groaned or snarled at me as I was scraping what I hoped was the correct key, ‘this time,’ all along her steering column and into the ignition-hole. I was very pleased to find that it was the right one, and with a big triumphant grin on my face that my Mom just glared straight off it, I turned the key. After a prolonged run-run- run noise that our car was fond of making, the engine growled to life like it had a phlegmy lung in it.
Our old LTD wasn’t really a bad car... for us it was a nice enough box-boat of a car. It was the first car that we had with electric windows in it. So that was cool. But it was also the first car that we had that Mom had the power to lock both the doors and windows on us, rendering us completely helpless to her will. O-yeah, that was cool too, I guess...
When I put the car into gear it took me a moment to figure out the difference between neutral, which just makes the motor sound bad-ass, but doesn’t do anything other than that; and drive. Which was the wrong way in this circumstance. It was reverse that I had wanted. But regardless I did make it out of the driveway with only two of the four tires falling off the curb, so that counts.
Our drive to the hospital was eventful only in the way that learning traffic laws that you thought you already knew on the fly could be. Of course there was also the learning the directions to where we were going to account for. Which has always been a special little bit of hell for all of my family. Me and my Mom are absolutely the worst people to give directions to while in a vehicle that is in motion, it freaks us out a bit. Then add in the fact that one of us was in the process of an apparent painful death, and well, that was just a joyful bonus to an already awesome trip!
Surprisingly enough, we both did survive and make it to the emergency room parking-lot, where we almost immediately died.
The gunshots didn’t start to come within our hearing until the third or fourth person was carried into the emergency room, noticeably leaking from at least one hole in them.
When we had entered the parking-lot it was like living out a movie scene, I had slammed on the brakes extra hard and screeched to a stop right in front of the big tinted glass doors. Yep, red curb and all, I totally saw it. But I also quickly figured that I was like eleven and had no idea that different colored curbs meant stuff. Seriously, what eleven-year-old driving his apparently- dying mom for the first time to the emergency room does? I challenge you to go back to the eighties and find one, then I’ll feel bad about it.
The things that the movies never show you is that when you slam on the brakes extra hard to make that cool screeching sound you and your already moody and apparently-dying passenger get all slammed into the dash, ‘stupid Isaac Newton!’ And then of course the underage, inexperienced, and completely unlicensed driver that got shanghaied into the job, gets all smacked- up besides his head and called an IDIOT!
“I’m not the one who decided to let me drive... remember!” I said in my own defense. Which it turns out wasn’t a defense at all... go figure. Oh-and we totally still had plenty of gas to get to my friend’s house, I did notice that on the way.
The rest of our emergency room entrance was like a movie as well. I had rushed around the other side of the car to get away from being smacked. But also to totally help my Mom out of the car as any young gentlemen would do... But then out of nowhere there was some guy smoking a cigarette in a white shirt that tells us, "You can't park there.”
“SERIOUSLY!” I shouted at his face.
"Yeah seriously” he had said back to me in a completely irrationally calm voice.
“JUST GO PARK THE DAMN CAR!” my mom shouted at me louder still. Then she began her lone painful, waddle for the big tinted glass doors while the smoking guy looked at me in a calm, smug way. I wondered just how much trouble a like-eleven-year-old could actually get into for hitting a smug smoking guy with his apparently-dying mom’s car...
Now, while I was parking the car a few of the already parked cars may or may not have, very movie like, sustained damage. But I’ll never admit to it. And once more, I would like to remind everyone about the statues of limitations having expired, and all that.
When I rushed into the double set of really big, thick, tinted glass sliding doors, everything got cool, compressed, and really freaking loud. People were shouting everywhere, at nobody or maybe at anybody. Then they would rush off to shout somewhere else and those who weren’t in the process of shouting were on extra rushing-around duties... Or at least that’s what it all seemed like to me at the time anyways. It was all pretty impressive really. Crying kids were also a deafening force in the noise. It sounded like there were dozens of them. But I could only see one kid in the smattering of people sitting there in the tan hard plastic chairs, patiently waiting their turns not to die.
I found my Mom in the back of all of this making her way to one of these chairs with a clipboard pressed to her chest. “Get a pen for me out of my purse.” She demanded of me knowing that I was there to boss around without even looking to see if I was there. It was like freaking magic, I tell you!
“Purse?” I said lamely back to her.
“You didn't grab my purse!” It wasn’t a question. I knew this. It was more of an obvious accusation. Totally unfounded too...
‘Noooo, why would I grab a purse!' my brain had immediately thought back at her furiously. But my mouth was way smarter and remained firmly sealed.
“Idiot!” she called me again in a very self-esteem boosting way and told me to, “Just go and find me a pen...NOW!”
So I went out in search of the elusive emergency room writing utensil. There was this long desk-like counter along the wall across from us and it looked like an excellent place to locate a pen. Sitting behind the long desk-like counter thing was a person of impossible proportions. She somehow sat in her... I think it was a chair... lower than the already low desk-counter thing’s top was. But she was still wide enough to fill the entire area behind it. It startled me and I just stood there staring in wonder at her for a moment. Not rudely, but I just sorta got stuck for a fast second. Then I noticed that she had, in return, noticed me. ‘How did you even get in there?' my brain asked. But my mouth said “Um, excuse me...” I stumbled out very quietly in embarrassment for her overwhelming hugeness.
“Fill this out” she told me in the most bored voice I have ever heard even to this day, and she slammed a clipboard down into my hands.
“But...um...” I voiced my protest.
“Fill! It! Out!” she said to me making each word its own separate little command. And suddenly the very mean hugely fat lady with the red glowing eyes that were looking right at me seemed to be very convincing. So I reluctantly took my clipboard and returned enthusiastically back to my still apparently-dying mother with it. I was shaken and seeking refuge. But I still had no pen. Just another clipboard to fill out somehow. Thankfully... my apparently-dying Mom had somehow managed to procure her own pen and was deeply involved in the process of filling out her own clipboard. Again like freaking magic, without even looking at me she asks me, “What the hell is that?” as I sat down in a hard tan plastic chair next to hers and laid my own clipboard across my knees in failure.
“I gotta fill it out” I said sadly.
She stops and stares at me for a moment, then winces in pain as if being reminded that she was currently apparently-dying, “Whatever.”
“Can I use that pen when you ’re done with it?” I muttered softly knowing full well how dumb I sounded.
The first-hole leaking person was carried in by another leaking guy and two ladies that were screaming very loudly “HE GONNA DIE! HE GONNA DIE!! O-GOD PLEASE HELPME! HE GONNA DIE!!!” They kept shouting it over and over while flinging their heads all around for dramatic effect. I’m guessing that they had blue yarn or something braided all in their hair. Because it really did look all colorful and dramatic with all the head movement. All the while, the leaking guy that was being carried was surprisingly very calm and quiet. He and the other leaking guy had at one point been wearing what looked like white T-shirts. But they were now red all over with blood. The one who was still walking was hacking deep coughs like he was gagging or choking or something. Then all at once, in a very movie way, thick bubbly blood came pouring out of his mouth. It looked like it was really expensive maple syrup, the kind you got served hot at nice restaurants. That must have convinced the medical staff that he really was gonna die!! Even if it was the wrong he, because they all rushed over to the four of them and took them away without even having to look at the really very fat lady’s clipboards first. This left me with a very, very dark-yellow mother, one mostly filled-out clipboard of two, and the ability to only say "whoa” at the time.
Gang warfare as we know it today, was at that time a relatively new thing in that part of California. And let’s be honest, if you were going to have yourself a test-run at warfare and shooting it out, an emergency room parking-lot is really an excellent place to do it. It’s all practical and stuff. So I guess that’s why they had decided to do it there on that day, practicality. Gang membership is totally known for that stuff...
After the first set of leaking guys, it wasn’t long at all before a steady stream of other leaking people were being carried in by their own rapid head moving screaming peoples. The competition of it all really got the normal rushing and shouting people all worked up, making them step up their game. When I had first entered the emergency room, it could have been called a cool hectic. Now it was nothing short of a completely illogical chaos and it got worse… fast!
It all happened in a second with a huge cracking noise. One of the big-ass tinted glass doors blasted into about a billion little, stuck-together pieces and it all just hung there, bowing in its frame like it was saying ‘look at me.' At least that’s what I heard it say. And we all did look. Everyone in the room was looking when the POP, POP, POP, noises started battling each other all around us. The other tinted windows, that were just as big-assed as the doors, started to shatter and even fall completely in. They left big piles of blue and green broken glass squares underneath the frames. Everyone screamed all at once then got up and began to run all around. But mostly directly at me and my dark-yellow apparently-dying Mom and our half-filled-out clipboards. I remember looking over at the desk-counter thing and seeing that the really very fat lady’s eyes were looking back at me all big and round, scared just like how mine must have been. I remember looking down at both our clipboards that I now held onto and for some illogical reason thinking ‘If I just give her the damn things, I get my Mom fixed and we can get the heck out of this place. ' To be honest, the adventure of the entire thing had lost all of its appeal for me. But when I looked over at the desk-counter thing again she was gone! She just vanished! It had to be a vanishing! There was simply no actual way someone in that pattern of shirt and that size could have moved anywhere in a room, no matter how big it was, without someone, everyone, seeing. But it had just happened and it was amazing to me. My jaw dropped and hung open in disbelief and all I could think of was. ‘But how am I going to get my Mom fixed now?!!’ I dropped the stupid clipboards to the floor.
Everyone was still screaming and running towards us for their lives. And for some reason, which is still unbeknownst to me, my dark-yellow and apparently-dying Mom grabs my hand and tells me, “Come-on, We’re leaving!” then started to drag me the other way everyone else was moving. She wanted to go through all of the people fleeing for their lives, it was insanity! And worst yet, she had a total mom-death-grip going on with my hand. Luckily for my survival and the writing of this, a couple of cops had pushed their way past us and positioned themselves between us and the big-ass shattered doors. Together they shouted “Move-back, move back, stay calm, stay calm.” (Why do people raise their hands up and push at the air in unison when they say things like that, is it part of the stay calm, don’t panic class or something?)
Well, either way, everyone was already moving back and basically no one was remaining calm. But they were all going back, all except us that is. My dark-yellow, apparently-sorta-dying- still Mom was pulling me and herself into our own little bubble of empty space in-between the staying calm area and the moving back in a full panic area. It was a very exposing place to be death-locked to your apparently-dying mother in. At least it was for me. But my Mom didn’t seem to care at all. She never really was one to care what a cop had to tell her. So she told the air pushing duo that she was leaving. And of course the cops responded with “No you 're not!” while his other half said “It's not safe out there at this time.” I was on the last guys side, he sounded reasonable... so I chimed in with a weak “Yeah.”
My Mom, she didn’t feel like being reasonable at all at the time. Maybe it was the dark-yellow, apparently-dying thing going on with her. I don’t really know. But she shouted, “GET OUT OF MY WAY!” at the two guys with guns, cops always had guns, that’s why you don’t shout at them, everyone knows this!
I said "CRAP!” I knew the tone she was using and I was pretty sure that things weren’t going to remain ‘staying calm' for much longer, especially if she figured out their full names! For a dark-yellow, apparently-dying lady my Mom was really surprisingly strong at the moment. Because either I was going to go along with her into the madness outside, or she was certainly going to keep my squashed offhand as a keepsake of our adventure together. And I’ve grown fond of my hand! So I took a bunch of really reluctant steps towards the armed men and the gang-war behind them alongside my very determined Mom, with my head down and embarrassed as all get out. But like I said, I really liked my hand. I was basically just figuring out the best ways to do things with it. So at the time I really, really wanted to keep it for a while longer.
But then the reasonable cop went and did a completely awesome thing, he served and protected me by yelling out “DOCTOR.” One of the rushing-around and shouting people rushed over to him where he was directed to us. He instantly pounced on us, shinning a really bright but tiny flashlight in our eyes to disorientate us, while he shouted to some other rushing-around peoples, who of course rushed right over and told my Mom to come with them!
"Thank god!” I had blurted out accidentally then looked pleadingly at the reasonable cop to see if he had my back if my Mom was to try and murder me... it was unclear. But I did get my hand back and I moaned in relief as I inspected its squished status and tried to work all of the smooshiness out of it. Then all of the sudden my Mom stopped docilely following the rushing people and very unreasonably turned around and shouted at me, "BEN-JAM-IN MICHAEL YOU STAY-RIGHT-THERE I-MEAN-TTU!” And she clearly did. There was no call for the full name treatment. I didn’t do nothing! Everyone in the room seemed to have turned to look at me to see if I would dare move after that, "Sheesh!” I wheezed out at them all and sat down on the floor right there so that I was next to a drying puddle of the bubbly, syrup looking blood.
"You’re going to have to move back son,” the reasonable cop said down at me suddenly being very unreasonable. I mean, seriously, he had been standing right there and clearly had seen the same dark-yellow, apparently-dying crazy woman as I had. She had used the whole name, seriously!
"Nope” I told him and was thinking to myself ‘psycho scary Mom trumps cops and gangwar every time. Sorry sir. Please don’t shoot me now!’ So both the reasonable and unreasonable cop grabbed me by an armpit each and forcibly dragged me back to where the others were huddled. The entire time I was being hauled, I had my arms crossed and my heels dragging. I was attempting to look as defiant as possible, making it so that there could be no way at all that it could be relayed to my Mom that I was by any means a willing participant in dying here... she was freaking crazy, it was super scary!
The cops released me into the custody and supervision of the really very fat lady who had somehow defied the laws of reality again and had reappeared in the group of huddled people with no one noticing it somehow. She had her red eyes out and looked all really mean again at me as she hissed, "Get over here!” She then placed the fattest hand I have ever felt on my shoulder to restrain me.
"Great,” I said thoroughly exasperated by this entire event now and a little more than confused as to who trumped whom in the authority pole now. I do know that it would have been a much more pleasant night if it hadn’t of all started with a lie, and I was just driven over to my buddy’s house to start with. Thinking over the authority scale for a second I considered that psycho Mom was, well... psycho... but mean super fat lady was right here and touching me and all that. Plus, she had unreasonable cops backing her play. So I just stayed still and didn’t offer any resistance. But I did still make sure that I looked very unhappy about the whole thing, just in case.
It was hours later before everything had started to go back to being just a cool hectic again. I was seriously starting to worry that I had now become an orphan stuck in the sweaty custody of a really very fat lady... it really sucked! But then my Mom came out of the other double doors where the rushing people took you to not die. I noticed straight off that she was back to her normal tanning-bed coloring instead of the dark-yellow, apparently-dying color, so that was a good thing. She had a little white bracelet which would later prove to be almost suicidal to remove, and a little plastic jar, and again a sorta normal skin tone which was a good thing.
She showed me the little jar and it both confused me and amazed me all at once. There was a whole bunch of really little rocks in it, kind of like sand. She told me that she had kidney stones. So, it wasn’t a heart-attack, and that was good too. I took her word on it. She explained to me that the stones had been inside of her blocking her all up. Which was bad, and again I took her word for it. Then she had told me that the doctors had to zap the stones with a laser or something to blow them up inside of her! And I was all like “Whoooa” this was ground shattering news to me, freaking lasers blowing stuff up. Where do I sign-up for that!?
Then it got a little weird. She told me that she had to wait and pee them all out, which hurt like hell. Now I have never had the pleasure of having to pass a stone before. But judging by the size of the not so small rocks now and my own little hole... yeah I get it!
But all my eleven-year-old mind could think of having me say was, “Why the heck were you eating rocks for? That’s dumb!"
“Shut-up” she told me and tried to hand me her little plastic jar that she had just clearly told me that she had peed in, while she signed some more clipboard stuff for the really very super fat lady.
"NO-WAYI!" I shouted in complete disgust. Then in-case she forgot I pointed out the fact that “You peed on that!” and I let her little plastic pee jar fall to the ground while everyone looked at us again.
“Pick-it-up!!” both my Mom and the really very fat lady said to me at the same time in their really mean red eyed voices.
“Crap!” I said very softly to the pee jar on the floor and bent down to pick it up... and I’m sure that I looked very unhappy about the whole thing too!
It was still pretty early in the evening when we were finally in the car, driving back towards home again. She was driving me. I was getting yelled at for messing with the radio and not sitting still, as it should be. It occurred to me since it was still so early and I had basically saved my Mom’s life, maybe we could go to my buddy’s house after all. So I asked.
And I swear she said to me... “I already told you we don’t have the gas” ... seriously!