Corey never could have known that all of his crazy adventures and all of his troublesome curiosities would somehow lead him to a place like this. He’d read books about prison and seen the movies and the shows. Everybody had. Prison held a powerful place in the collective imagination of man. Big tough biker dudes would be known to piss themselves when first entering the gates of a maximum-security prison.
Corey had always imagined he would do fine for maybe five years in some nice cushy Club-Fed facility— the kind of place where rich men and politicians ended up doing time. His passions were reading and writing, and also thinking and observing (it’s all part of the same package). He was a writer, to his very core, just not a very good one. But that was because life was always getting in the way. In this type of place, he imagined, he could spend his time in a clean little unit, with nothing to distract him—just doing what he wanted to do anyway. And he could have visitors when he wanted, and they would bring good wine and a basket full of the best that Oregon charcuteries had to offer. And he would have a writing desk and a high-speed internet link, good lighting, and a Kindle (which is like having a library with a million books). And of course, somebody would do his laundry and clean the unit several times each week. He didn’t need much space to be happy.
Gustave Flaubert had written, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” This spoke to him. It’s not that he wanted the Club-Fed life, but in his imagination, it certainly seemed like something that he could work to his advantage if he had to. He would become the writer he had always known that he could be—full stop. He would live a writer’s life. And of course, there would be some cardio in “the yard” every day to keep his body strong and his mind functionally keen. Maybe some pickup ball with a bunch of overweight accountants and lawyers (he would school those ole boys), or some long runs around the perimeter. Maybe even bike rides could be arranged.
But now, something quite the opposite was happening. He couldn’t believe his own senses. How had it happened? Things were still pretty blurry. He was probably concussed, and so he wasn’t thinking too well. Here’s the topper. Instead of Club-Fed, he was now lying on the dirty sweat-covered floor of his cell in Tipitapa Prison in Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua. The guards didn’t hesitate to mention, more than once, when he arrived, that he was now a resident of Tipitapa prison. They seemed to enjoy saying this. He had often heard it said that Tipitapa was the worst prison in all of the Americas (North America, Central America, and South America) combined. Everyone feared it. Damn it! If he could trust his mind now, he was in one rancid pile of deep shit. Take all those prison shows that you have ever seen on TV, and think, “10 times worse!” Suddenly he realized that he was shaking.
There was a lot of noise and shouting around him. He didn’t multi-task well, and he had to figure this out, so all that could wait. He began to take inventory. He was wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. Both were spattered with blood. He had only owned three pairs of shorts, three short sleeved shirts, a few pairs of socks and some underwear since he arrived in Nicaragua the year before. There was blood running down his neck. It seemed to be coming from his head. And he had peed himself. He was laying on the floor of a cell with maybe 40 men practically piled on top of one another. Evidently, the cell was designed to hold 20 men max.
He remembered what little he’d heard or read about Tipitapa, that is, aside from the fact that it was hell on earth. The prisoners weren’t segregated, so a jaywalker might be in the same cell as a serial killer. And there was no money for prisons in Nicaragua, so the infrastructure was falling apart, the temperature control was non-existent—tough in a tropical climate—the water supply was contaminated, and the cells were overcrowded. Most inmates, even the tough ones, couldn’t last five years in this place.
The inmates were like vultures, circling, trying to read the new gringo. Was he afraid? Was he tough? Was he rich? Was he a pop or a carnal (a gang member)? Was he pretty? Corey knew that these were the objects of the early surveillance. He could feel it. They would look him over, touch him, rough him up a little, and shout things in Spanish all the while. His Spanish was fair at best, and these guys had some crazy accents. Besides, he felt like he was in another world anyway. This wasn’t happening to him. He was just watching it, like on TV. The inmates would stick out their tongues and wag them in sexually inspired ways. They would do crazy shit like licking the air and pretending to wank. Still, other inmates looked angry, and they would do the slice-your-throat death sign or a shank movement, like a stab-and-slice-to-the-gut.
He just didn’t react. He didn’t show fear. He didn’t show anything. That was easy because he didn’t feel anything. He just needed this time to think. He had to understand what had happened to him and why he was here. He tuned out all the rest. His head was pulsating painfully, but he could focus enough to figure this out.
The words came like daggers, “¡Puta! ¿Puta, que pasa? ¿Que tienes? Soy tu jefe…” Bitch! What’s happenin’ bitch? I am your boss… It just trailed off, like another voice from far away, trying to get through a thick metal enclosure to Corey somewhere deep inside. There was a slight echo. He went deeper into his own mind, and it all began to come back. The thread was unraveling within. He had been out later than usual that night. He lived in Granada, a small ancient colonial town, with his Chilean wife, his 12-year old mulatto son, a US dog and two Nica cats. They loved Nicaragua. They felt relaxed. And he was beginning to become a writer or sort of. His family was becoming a part of Granada, and he felt safe in his little community—safer than most anywhere back stateside. That he was sure of. Another voice penetrated: “Estas Nuevo en la pinta. No tienes huevos. No tienes cred.” You’re new here. You have no bones. You have no cred. The voices were still far away, but he noticed them.
His cat Torcha had been missing for three days. They had rescued this beautiful creature from almost certain death. As a newborn, she had been left in an alley to die, or by some small chance, be found. The people in Nicaragua were good people, but they were poor, and there were too many cats. And more every day. They could barely afford to feed their families, many of them, and a doctor’s appointment was a stretch. So how could they take care of all these cats? It took him a while to understand. The Nicas weren’t cruel toward animals— not at all. They just had no answers for the ever-growing cat population. And the culture had adapted to the requirements of the circumstance. So, it was okay— though not ideal— in this culture to put an unplanned litter of kittens in a dumpster in an alley. New to a country, you must be prepared to make cultural leaps if you want to get by there. You must understand and respect the cultural contrasts. There were many, and they were sometimes hard to figure out. Corey had seen many foreigners move to a place like Nicaragua, and either become bitter or return home, unable to adapt to the norms of a new culture.
Torcha was like family. And she had run off during a horrible thunderstorm. She had run in fear, somehow fallen from the roof, and kept on running until she was far enough from home to be lost. That is how it happened, they figured. Corey and his family—they were hurting, and Corey felt certain that Torcha was alive and trying to get back home. He was walking some of the darker quieter residential streets north of their home near Los Bomberos: The Fire Station. Now and then he would stop, look, call her name, and then wait in silence for a moment. She had to be alive, she had to be close, and she had to be scared and hiding, maybe injured. After being saved from the alley, she’d only been outside—with the exception of the roof— one other time. She was allowed out on the roof, and she worked the entire block of common-wall colonial homes from high above street level— a place where only cats and birds and geckos and bats existed. No people. No cars. One time, when the rest of his family was back in Oregon, Torcha had fallen off the roof and into the neighbor’s yard. It took a day to find and rescue her. The colonial homes are like fortresses. The entire fiasco had been frightening but kind of funny too. Torcha was working full-on through the nine lives that she had been issued at birth.
Just then, as Corey turned the corner onto another quiet street, he heard a terrible sound. A creature was in pain. It wasn’t human. It was a dog. And it was yelping and crying as he had never heard a dog yelp and cry before. Corey ran toward the sound, and he was horrified by what he saw as he drew near. A man inside a home, and with the main door open, was beating his dog with what looked to be and sounded like, a large chain. At that moment, Corey knew that he had to do something.
He ran to the door. These old colonials all had iron-gated outer doors. He shook the gate and yelled, “¿Por qué estás golpeando a tu perro? ¡Esto no está bien!” Why are you beating your dog? This isn’t right! The man looked up. His eyes were bloodshot. He was wild with rage.
He shouted back in a slurred, rum-soaked voice, “This is not for you. Go away!” And then he began beating the dog even harder than before, now on the head. He was going to kill it! Corey reached through the bars of the iron gate and found the latch. It was unlocked. He opened the door and ran to the man beating the dog. He only wanted to stop him.
“Stop,” Corey shouted. “Stop!” The man swung his chain at Corey, hard. At this moment, Corey realized that he was fighting for his life. He had to get this right. He glanced around, and immediately spotted an old Wilson baseball bat leaning against the wall. Baseball was the national sport of Nicaragua, so he wasn’t exactly surprised, but lucky for sure. He knew how to use a bat as a weapon, at least theoretically. Back home in Oregon, it was the only weapon he kept in his house. He kept it by the bed. He had a family after all. He hadn’t played for years, but he had played a lot as a kid, and he often thought about how he would best use the bat if he ever had to, as a weapon. He grabbed it.
He screamed at the top of his lungs! An animal-like sound carried from somewhere deep within. It surprised even Corey. He stepped back to get enough room for a good long swing. The room was large and open, typical of these old colonials, and so nothing was in the intended arc of his swing. He cocked the bat, shifted his weight to his right leg, aimed, and swung hard. He knew this might be his last chance. No balls. No strikes. He needed a home run. And he got it. The sound of the rum-man’s head being crushed was like nothing describable. The skull bone is soft, so it was more mush than crunch, yet still something in between. The man collapsed.
Corey was pretty sure that he had just killed a man. He started shaking uncontrollably. He had to keep it together. The man might not be dead. The dog was bleeding and whimpering nearby, trying to pull itself away from the violence. Corey kneeled over the man’s still body. He was going through the motions now. He felt as though he had entered an alternate universe. Time, sound, space… it all seemed a little different. Somehow, everything had shifted a little, but in this case, a little was a lot.
The next thing he knew, he was waking up. In a car. In a police car. Pacos. Cops. Corey was wearing handcuffs. His head was throbbing, and he had blood running down his face. Someone said something. It was the passenger.
“He’s waking up. Hey, hey, hey…” Corey looked toward him. “I’ve got good news for you,” said the cop. He thought he heard “Tipitapa,” and then he passed out again. They woke him on arrival and began the tedious process of taking their prisoner deep into the labyrinth. He met guards. They gave little speeches. They took his stuff. They gave him a bar of soap and a ragged washcloth, and they put him in the cell. He was welcomed, you might say, by the horde of men. And he looked around for a little space that he could claim as his own. The bunks were all taken and much of the floor. The “prison realtor” tried to sell him a bunk.
“You pay 60,000 cords ($2,000), and the bunk is yours. I get you a nice one. You take it now. Just think how good it feels. You pay later. After your honey-pie comes to see you. Okay?” He turned away. This couldn’t be happening. And he settled on a small piece of wet floor, with nothing to lean on and no privacy or protection.
This is how Corey became inmate #2373 of the notorious Tipitapa prison. But why? Why had he done this thing? He could have walked on by. And now he knew why. It all started with a paper. It was about an idea. It was about core values. While at the University of Oregon, he had written a paper about ethical choices and behaviors. The paper was entitled, “Ethics Begin with Action.” With this paper, he had essentially argued that one must always do what he believed to be the right thing, even when— especially when— it is most difficult. “Ethical action must always be the ultimate and only conclusion to ethical thought,” he had written. “Too much philosophical discussion in coffee houses has become a form of ethical masturbation. It is easier to do the wrong thing when you’ve repeatedly talked about what the right thing is. Talk has become a sort of panacea for right-action.” The paper didn’t get into the finer point of cultural relativity. He hadn’t traveled enough back then to think along those lines. His travels came later. It was a good paper, though, straight from the heart. And he had gotten an A+.
Again, the yelling grew louder and closer: “¡Hijo de puta! ¡Hijo de puta…!” An ugly fight was underway just ten feet from where he sat. The punches were loud, and a fine mist of blood was now covering his left arm. He didn’t care. He had to think.
He had tried to live his life according to the ideals set forth in his paper. But once, just after a long trip down from the roof of the world, from Lhasa, Tibet to the border with China proper, he had come upon a man beating a stray dog over the head with a hefty piece of firewood. He was appalled. But he also realized, at that moment, that cultural differences were partially at work here. Who was he to enforce the law in China? And truth be known, he was scared.
A roundhouse punch took one man down and out. He lay unconscious on the floor of the cell, others scurrying out from under him. The other man leaned over and spit, “Bastardo, te dije que te lastimaría.” Bastard, I told you I would hurt you.
Corey passed by and didn’t say anything to the Chinese man brutalizing the dog that day. It had hurt him deep inside, and he didn’t know how to heal. It was one of his only real regrets in life. He had sworn to himself that if something like this were ever to happen again, he would get it right. And he did. Or did he?
The room was rushing back into focus. The guards were carrying the injured man out and dragging the victor away. Men were shouting and bumping into one another. Corey was being jostled. A thin film of sweat and blood seemed to coat everyone and everything. Corey, almost instinctively, in an animal mode now, plunged into his limited vocabulary of Nica slang, and surprisingly, found exactly what he needed.
“¡A mi me vale verga!” he shouted as loud as he could, to no one in particular: I don’t give a fuck!