I got the penny on our honeymoon. I’ve worn it around my neck ever since — never took it off for anything. That penny meant more to me than my wedding ring. Then somebody went and stole it from me, so I killed him.
We went to New York City, and it was the first time either of us had ever been much of anywhere. It was February, and we walked all over the city in the snow, amazed at the size of the place and all the buildings and people. We went to the top of the Empire State Building and waited in line to go out onto the observatory. That’s where I bought the penny.
They had this machine; you put in a penny, and it stamped a little picture of the Empire State Building and punched a hole in it. We went to a sidewalk vendor in front of a bodega off Times Square, and I bought a silver chain to hang it on. It’s hung around my neck ever since then until this scumbag over in C block yanked it off coming in from the yard.
I been in here for three years on a five-year stretch for a smash and grab at a jewelry store down in Hapeville. I should have got off on account of the cops didn’t read me my rights before they popped me in the ribs with their baton, but the PD they gave me was a moron. Since I been in, I got in a little trouble so they keep taking away my good time. I’ll probably do the whole nickel. No big deal — my old lady’s waiting on me. She comes every month and for Christmas, I might get a conjugal.
Anyway, there’s this big biker jerk named Lowside. We got into it a couple times out in the yard, but the bulls broke it up before it got serious. He’s had it in for me since I was the new guy. Seems I was sitting in his spot on the benches when he came out for his yard time, and I didn’t give him his propers, so he starts buggin. I didn’t know it was his spot, but you can’t back down, not when you’re the new guy.
Mostly, I just made sure not to turn my back on him or get caught alone on the block. He ran with those Aryan punks, but they weren’t making no thing over it, it was a personal beef. I just didn’t want to get shanked if I could help it. They threw me a blanket party that first week, but nothing much since then. That’s when they catch you off guard and throw a blanket over you before they beat the crap out of you, so you can’t see who done it.
Anyway, I’m coming in from the yard while he’s going out; they got this new rotation now. We’re passing in the lockdown cage and just as they open the door and start herding us back to the blocks, Lowside reaches out and snatches the chain off my neck. His buddies close ranks and the bulls are pushing us in and before I can do anything about it; I’m in lockdown and he’s in the yard.
It was two days later in chow before I saw him again and I charged in. His whole table stands up and fronts for him, and I couldn’t do nothing then neither. He just smiled that crooked tooth grin of his, tattooed arms crossed over that potbelly he carried around. He says, “What chain? I don’t know nothing about no chain, fish.”
“Fish? I been in here longer than some of your buddies here, Lowside. You get my penny back, or I’ll do the rest of my nickel in D-Seg for doing you.”
“Well, now, you just bring it on, fish. I think you’re outnumbered.” He laughed. “You shoulda joined the brotherhood when you had a chance. Those old-school boys you hanging with just doing they time. Ain’t going to do nothing to help you.”
The guards were starting our way, so I turned and went back to my table. Lowside was right about one thing. The convicts I was hanging around would do nothing to bring attention to them. When I first got in, the Aryan Brotherhood approached me and I turned them down. I didn’t believe in what they stood for and didn’t want to do my stretch being a part of that. Instead, I hung out with some old-timers; they mostly left convicts who had earned some respect alone.
I was sitting with one of them then. Montana had landed a plane full of pot in a field surrounded by DEA agents back in 1975 when they took that sort of thing a lot more seriously than they do now. The sentence then was fifteen to forty and Montana pulled the whole stretch. He had always worn this belt that said Montana across the back, and that’s the only name anybody knew.
“Why are you squaring off against those peckerheads?” asked Montana.
“Lowside stole something of mine and I want it back.”
Montana chuckled. “You’ve been in here, what… three years? And you still a fish. Don’t you know possessions got us all here? And in here, they don’t mean nothing. You just got to do your time and get out.”
“You don’t understand, Montana. That penny he stole is all I got of my wife. I need it to get me through my time.”
“You’re the one don’t understand. Everything you need to get through your time is up here.” He tapped his head. “I been here thirty years, and I’m up for parole again this spring. How you think I did that? By holding onto something that I had on the outside? Hell, no.” He tapped his head again. “I did it by living up here. Up here, I’m still a free man; I can still see the outside and breathe free. That’s how I did it, and that’s how you got to do it. If you don’t, that nickel will be a dime before you get through.”
In my heart, I knew he was right. Montana had become like a father to me in here. He took me under his wing the first week and showed me the ropes. I was being escorted to the block with the other new prisoners. I kept looking around, scared and awestruck by the sights and smells; oh God, the smells. I looked at each inmate as the jibes and catcalls got louder, wanting to be tough and not show fear. That’s when I first saw Montana, standing in his cell shaking his head, a sad smile on his face.
Later that week, I was standing by myself in the yard looking out the fence when he walked by.
“You got to keep your eyes to yourself, boy.”
“What? What’re you talking about?”
“You’re walking through the block with your head spinning around like a lighthouse. Like you’re at the circus or something. And you look scared. You got to cut that out. Look straight ahead and don’t see nothing. Your eyes got to go dead, like there ain’t nothing or nobody else around. That’s lesson one if you want to make your time.”
And that was lesson one. Little by little, he taught me how to go along to get along. Some other old-timers gave him a hard time for working with the new guy, but he didn’t seem to mind. And it didn’t matter to him what anybody thought. Like most of the old school convicts, Montana had earned the respect of the population and the guards. Nobody much messed with them.
The next time our group was passing C block going to the yard, Lowside whistled. When I looked over, he pulled his shirt collar down, and I could see my penny hanging around his tattooed neck. I knew then that it would be hard to listen to Montana’s advice, but I also knew that I had to try. I talked to him about it that day in the yard.
“I don’t know if I can let it go, Montana.”
“You have to, fish. You got two years left. It’ll eat you up inside. Focus on what’s waiting for you on the outside — at least you have that. I got nobody waiting on me. Everybody I used to hang with is either dead or in the joint. But I’m still living for the outside. Every day, I get up and think about what I’m going to do when I’m free. I can’t get my pilot’s license back, but I was a heck of a mechanic. I’m going to set me up a little shop at Peachtree-DeKalb airport. Right now, it’s looking like I’m going to be out before you are. You come look me up when you get out, I’ll hook you up with a job. How’d that be?”
“That sounds good, Montana. I appreciate it. I’ll try to forget Lowside and work on doing my time. Thanks, man.”
The next day, I was on work detail, raking the track that runs along the fence. I looked over in the yard and saw Montana arguing with Lowside. It looked like they were going at it pretty good. Montana poked a finger in Lowside’s chest, and one of his homeboys gave him a shove — hard. Montana went down. I saw him get up and dust himself off. He got right in Lowside’s face and said something, then walked away. I decided to ask him about it the first time I had the chance.
The next morning at chow, the lockdown alarm went off. That meant something had happened and we all had to get back to our cell. As I walked past, I asked the guard on my block what was going on.
“They found Montana on his bunk this morning. He had a shank stuck in the side of his neck.”
“Ahh, man. Do they know who did it?”
“Nobody saw anything. You know that. They found a penny on his chest, though. That mean anything to you?”
I couldn’t answer. I just shook my head and continued on to my cell. I was solo right then — my last cellmate had got a transfer. As soon as I got to my bunk, they hit the buzzer and all the doors clanged shut on my floor. I sat on my bunk and thought about Montana. It had been a long time since I cried, and I was grateful I was alone then.
We stayed on lockdown for twelve hours. The evening meal slid through the slot on the floor. Lights out came early, and I lay there in the dark. I had already decided what to do; now I only had to figure out how and when. After things quieted down, I got up and went to the toilet. I pulled the lid off the tank and removed the lift arm that ran between the flush handle and the stopper. In prison toilets, this was a piece of plastic, but it would still serve my purpose. Usually, nobody used toilet parts for shivs, because it would become obvious quick that it didn’t flush anymore. When the guards found out, that was an automatic solitary, but I figured I was headed for the hole, anyway.
I worked the piece of plastic against the floor of my cell until I had a point on one end. I wrapped a strip from the tail of my shirt around the other end and put it in my sock. It was a week before I had the opportunity to use it.
Lowside and his boys were lifting weights. He was spotting for somebody doing bench presses. I strolled along the fence until I was behind him and then slipped up on him just as he took the weight bar in both hands. I looked around to make sure I would have time, then bent down and pulled the shiv from my sock. As I straightened up, Lowside turned, but not quick enough. As I shoved the blade into his head, just behind the earlobe, I whispered into the other ear. “This is for Montana.”
He screamed and grabbed the side of his head as he fell, but he was dead before he hit the ground. The alarm sounded and guards were on the run before his buddies could react. I reached down and inside his shirt. I grabbed the chain that held my penny and yanked it away, just as the guards pulled me off.
When they got me to the hole, they threw me in and bolted the door. As they turned out the lights, plunging the small cell into total darkness, I could feel the penny still grasped in my hand. And I thought of my young wife and Montana, both free and on the outside.