Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Hammer and Sickle Tattoo

The Hammer and Sickle Tattoo
by Randy Lowens

When the iron door clanged shut behind me and I stepped into direct sunlight for the first time in six months, I knew the first place I was headed was Ace McCray's Hometown Tattoos and Video Parlor. But I wasn't going to get a tattoo. I was going to have one removed. The hammer and sickle on my left shoulder blade had to go.

Big city jails have changed over the years. We all griped when they banned smoking, of course, but other changes were made, too. Like the cameras that watch you day and night. The automatic lights that go on at eight AM and off at eleven. Except they never all go off, so a man lives in a state of perpetual soft glow that blends with the ceaseless chatter of the card players nearby and the hum of traffic in the distance. You rest a little, but you never really sleep.

But the Beauregard County clink wasn't like that. It was, and I assume still is, a pokey of the old school. You never saw such a backwoods stinkhole in all your life.

Beauregard County is the poorest in all south Alabama, so I reckon that says a lot. No tax base to pay for cameras and security lights. Instead, a guard still patrols the hallway—or doesn't, if the sheriff is gone—and turns the lights on and off whenever he deems it necessary or convenient.

I liked it at first, early in my sentence. I mean, at night a man could sleep in total darkness. And it was near abouts to quiet, too, cause the card sharks couldn't see to play after the sun went down. So you just lie in the cool of the evening, feeling the breeze from the fan ripple the sheets against the steel frame, listening to the birdsong and crickets outside. And the other sounds, too, of course, the ever present jailhouse sounds: the rhythmic creaking of a man alone on his bunk, or the moans that escape a pair of lovers. Stifled sobs. A sudden cry of terror in the morning hour. You always hope it was only a bad dream, and try to go back to sleep.

Anyway, I was pretty happy for the first month or two of my sentence. Or as happy as a man in lockdown ever gets. Then the midnight visits started.


You get to know your cellmates when you serve a sentence. You don't really want to, but you do. Each stretch starts with the same attitude: “Just gonna build my time. Stay out of trouble. Stick to myself, and be out before I know it.” But you get bored. You get lonely, so you join in an occasional conversation. Besides, there's nowhere to hide.

The one thing that no jailhouse, urban or rural, offers is privacy. You take a shower and step out into a room full of men. Some guys love it; you can tell. They take their time, taking long, slow swipes across their backs with the towel. Others get out, grab a rag and throw it around their waists before they're half dry.

A hard attitude, or a reputation for savagery, goes a long way towards protecting a man in jail. So does striking an imposing figure while dripping wet. I never minded being middling size, myself. Never wanted to be a small fellow who invites attack, nor so large as to draw a lot of admiring or envious stares. I'm happy to blend in the crowd, to do my time as anonymously as possible. That usually worked pretty good. At least, until someone recognized the symbol on my shoulder.

Why on earth did I get a hammer and sickle with the inscription Che Lives! painted on my back? Because I'm a second generation Communist. My mother was a Maoist in Atlanta during the sixties, a member of the so-called New Left. (We never knew who my father was, because I was conceived during an orgy. Or so I'm told. You know, free love, make love not war, and all that.) So anyway, in my early teens, when I was on fire for the workers revolt that all our family and friends were certain lay just around the corner, I got the tattoo.

Of course, said revolt never materialized. Instead came disco music, the war on drugs, and a long reign of Republican Presidents. There I was, through it all, stuck with a Stalinist tattoo. I took a lot of beatings on account of it during the Reagan era before the Soviet Union collapsed, and for a while afterward when memories of the specter of The Evil Empire were still fresh. But, over the years, as I became less political, more addicted, and brown-faced Muslims wearing turbans became the new enemy, I learned to deflect the attacks.

I would tell people the tattoo was ironic, a joke. Sometimes that worked. But some old boys didn't think it was funny at all. What finally worked best of all was the truth, when I admitted that I got the tattoo as an expression of love for my mother. One thing no Southern boy will do is talk bad about your mother.
“My Mama was a Communist. But she was a good Mama, and I loved her, so I got the tattoo. You got a problem with that?”

“Sorry, man. I didn't know.”

Amazing, the allegiance of Southern manhood to the notion of mothering.


My bunkmates in Beauregard County were the usual mix. Jerry was black, a joker and a coke head who stole a weed eater and hocked it for dope money. Larry was a red-headed mill worker, a young tough in tennis shoes, jeans, and tee shirts with one too many drunk driving charges. Ralph was someone we all left alone: he didn't finish killing his wife before burying her. Said he was in a Xanax blackout; claims he didn't remember anything about it. He seemed normal enough around the breakfast table, but, nevertheless, we all steered clear of him.

Sam, on the other hand, had committed no heinous crimes we knew of. He was just run-of-the-mill crazy. An old man in overalls who talked to himself, kept a mumbled monologue running about god-knew-what under his breath all day long and half the night. Had a mute brother serving time in the same jail who, by all appearances, was right in the head, if not especially bright. It was Sam who got to me after a while.

Me and Sam slept in neighboring cells. Each cell contained six bunks, filled to half capacity during the summer lull, a season when three-hots-and-a-cot didn't have the same appeal as in wintertime. Not a bad gig, crashed out in a half-filled jail, if you had to build some time anyway. But every night around midnight, Sam took to walking over to the wall of iron that separated us, hanging one wrinkled, hairy knuckle off the bars like a monkey in the zoo, pointing at me with the other hand, and moaning. Groaning and howling like a banshee at a black mass. Of course, as usual, you couldn't understand anything he said. We laughed at first. But after a while it got eerie. Irritating. Downright maddening.

Jerry claimed Sam just had the hots for me. But Sam never did anything sexual. He just pointed a crooked, gnarled finger at me and moaned. For hours on end, sometimes clear into the dawn.

It was Larry who finally made the connection between Sam's shenanigans and my tattoo. One afternoon I stepped out of the shower, stood for a moment, then snatched my towel—not lingering for attention, but not covering up so quick as to reveal my fear, either—when Sam started moaning and pointing. When his dumb brother slapped my tattooed shoulder, silently nodding his head and pointing, Larry crowed, “It's the damn commie tattoo that ole Samuel don't like.” So that was it. This was why I was being denied a decent night's sleep: a couple of half-wit convicts hadn't heard that the Cold War was over.

I was lucky I didn't kill Sam. I tried to. Honest, I did. I'd had two months of sleepless nights, of being stalked by a psycho, my nemesis always on the far side of the bars. So when he started pointing and moaning in the bullpen where the common shower was, with no iron between us, I went for his throat. I found it and squeezed, harder and harder as his ugly, puckered face went from pink to crimson to scarlet, and that's the last I recall until Larry and Jerry pulled me off him.

“My Mama! My Mama!” was all I could say for the longest time. My buddies had me pinned to the floor, naked, dripping wet, hands locked behind my back, and still I yelled, “You two retard sonuvabitches better NEVER talk about MY Mama again!”

I mean, yeah, I was a Communist once, but I was always a Southern boy first of all.