McKean County Jail, Late December



There isn’t much light when you’re inside;

Well, natural light, anyway,

And if you’re looking for a star to guide you

Through your thirty days, you’re even more out of luck

Than you were getting here in the first place,

(In my case, appropriating—almost—a turkey breast

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving,

In the hope no tired, overworked checkout girl

Would ever miss it. Piss poor luck, nothing more.)

The windows too narrow to climb out,

Too high to smash in anger or frustration.

Still, you can see a bit of the outside world,

The sky (this once, at least,) more blue

Than mid-December has a right to be

In this grubby, hardscrabble corner of northwestern P-A,

Dirty old lake to the west, endless, logged-out hills to the east,

Underwhelming never-quite-boomed mill towns to the south,

Up north Indian land where bootleggers and numbers-runners

Holed up once upon a time (the Senecas having gone legit,

With Beach Boys and Barbara Mandrell fronting shell games

Which now bear the Feds’ seal of approval.)

This is the Galilee I to which I shortly return.




Time gets syrupy in the hole, moving slowly, lazily,

Fighting the laws of Newton and Einstein at every turn,

And, when the bitching about lawyers,

Oft-repeated and off key done-me-wrong songs

And respectful (if somewhat impatient) supplications to Jesus

For a speedy deliverance are no longer sufficient distraction,

Then a man begins to think and remember.

I met Easy Terry E. (so he called himself) in the city lockup in Troy,

Or maybe it was Schenectady (I have, after all,

Been up and down the Eastern Seaboard,

On both sides of the bars) and, I tell you,

For the only time in my life I wished

That these little city holding cells had solitary,

As Terry E. not only had a scraped-chalkboard falsetto

Which constituted aggravated assault on the eardrums,

But also a predilection for non-stop yammering and prattling on

About nothing and everything, punctuating his blather

With high-pitched and frequent insistences that he was a hermaphrodite,

And he would frequently taunt the guards by yowling

Baby, I got a lady’s equipment down here. Why don’t you strip search me, hon?

(Such high spirits led to a predictable, inevitable end;

I heard a jailer up in Utica decided to quiet him down

By sticking Terry’s head in a toilet, and the swirlie

Ended up being a minute or two longer than was advisable),

But I had been able to more or less ignore him

Since to that point he’d concentrated on pissing off everyone else in the cells

With the exception of me, but my turn came around soon enough.

Oh, don’t worry Peter, darling, I know your type.

Different, smarter, than the rest of us.

Mebbe so, I grumbled, just a few fluky bad breaks here and there.

Terry laughed and clapped his hands,

Poor sweet thing, a victim of that old lousy karma.

There was a philosopher…

And he stopped for a moment,

Seemingly trying to pick a name out of the air

(Not that he could likely see anything floating in front of him,

As he wore horn-rims with lenses as thick and opaque

As the headlights of a ’72 Skylark). Well, never mind, then.

So you’re just taking a break here until your luck turns, mmm?

I laid back against the wall, hands behind my head, and grinned.

Yep, I replied, things are due and then some to start going my way.

Terry giggled again. Well, you’ve got it figured out then!

Good, evil, right, wrong–no more than snapshots of the roulette wheel

In some infinitesimal sliver of time, and all we can do

Is put our chips down and hope the croupier is playing it straight.

Well, now that you’ve finally figured all of that out,

I suspect you won’t see the wrong side of the bars again,

And with that, he turned his back to me,

Paying me no mind whatsoever

Until they turned me loose the next morning,

With the stern admonishment

To trouble the good citizenry of the Capitol District no more.

As I think back to that moment,

I suspect that he may not have been telling the whole truth as he saw it.




And so I will be released

From this cell in this small, red-brick building

In the midst of this equally small, red-bricked town,

And I will by-pass the bars with their potential for a cheap hustle,

With their various types and flavors of low-hanging fruit,

And I will dispense with a seat on some sad Trailways bus,

Seeking a ride (thumb hopefully, defiantly pointing

Upward to the sky) on the Grand Army Highway,

Then north on the Buffalo Road,

And I will climb down the embankment

To the Kinzua Dam, and, shedding shoes, socks, and clothes

With no concern for the cold,

I shall wade into the water, acclimating ankles and washing my feet,

Then dive headlong under the water’s surface,

So that I may rise cold, cleansed, and ready to move onward.


24 thoughts on “McKean County Jail, Late December

    1. I don’t think it would be strange at all; I could probably natter on for paragraphs why I think that, but that would involve wandering into the whole “this is what this poem is about”, and I have always believed that the fact you wrote something doesn’t give you the leeway to decide what it means.

  1. great story telling…having worked a jail before this felt real and that desire to be cleansed in the river…yes, go forward…nice one shot…

  2. Well this was real. Like being there. Implied or inferred…it was the metaphor for original sin, the human bondage, and the baptism and resurrection all in three uneven parts that sealed the deal. Great words and concrete images. Well written. Gay @beachanny

    1. I would like to note how much I liked “The Stranger”(there’s seeds and then there are seeds); my browser/firewall won’t allow to comment on Blogspot, or at least not consistently.

  3. the second verse was a magnificent write…which sat above two unbelievable other verses…i was captivated by the tale…i could hear the deep american drawl in the narrative…i could visualise the whole thing,, seriously this is a screenplay waiting to happen…with his self baptism as a way of moving forward at the end…a great write…pete

  4. This is a powerfully maintained narrative, full of convincing descriptive detail and a strong sense of place. Most significant in its success is the authenticity of the narrator’s voice that manages both commentary and reflection. Quite a tour de force, this.

  5. Some good details in here, but also some that could probably be pruned to streamline this a bit. It also read more like prose than poetry; maybe an experiment in ditching the line breaks? You’ve created a believable character, situation, and location, so well done.

  6. I have remarked, on numerous occasions to the point of pointless repetition, what an uncanny ability you have for the narrative. The characterization is so good, these men thrown together by unfortunate happenstance seem like people I know from somewhere.. This is a fine monologue of an anti-hero who seems all the more believable for his humanity. So nice to see you linking up to Real Toads.

  7. I love a good novel that develops characters and circumstances and scenery in a way that I feel like I’m immersed in the story. This epic poem is exactly that. Very difficult to achieve in a short piece. Masterful.

  8. wow – by far one of the best things I’ve read today! I’m with Kerry here – the narrative! the story – I completely fell into it, you have such a natural way with words, everything was just right, the phrasing, flow – the lot. many great descriptions throughout too – you build up this story around us as we read and by the end I feel I know every character, every scene and setting – it’s like reading a novel in fewer words! brilliant stuff here, I shall be back to read more, nice seeing this up on Real Toads!

  9. yeah, you got it. i grew up in that part of northwestern PA, you got it exactly right. and so disconcerting how they move the inmates around, so that place isn’t place anymore. it isn’t anything. man, the kinzua dam, that shot me right back to about eight years old. whew, thank you for this.

  10. love this. the characters are as real as any overalled questionably-brained faulkner creations, only more northerly, and with less of a penchant (at least here) for familial entanglements. i have remarked before on your uncanny ability to create Place. i’m there, breathing that hardscrabble PA air, feeling the frigid water shock my system, anticipating that moment of icy baptism, and hard-faced, yankee redemption.
    an innate creator, your characters live and your landscapes envelop completely. excellent stuff.

    also – this is me being jumpy-glad to see your stuff up at real toads. 🙂

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