Jonathan "JC" Collins sat up on his metal prison cot. The coarse, state-issued gray prison blanket slipped down off of his muscular frame, exposing the sculpted torso of his body. His brown eyes squinted in the early morning darkness as they adjusted to the half-light. He looked around the cell that had been his home for the last ten years of his life. The only noise to be heard in the prison at this hour was the banging and clanging of the large pots and pans in the prison kitchen. A mere hour from now, the whole prison would be wide awake. The cacophony of sound that thousands of prisoners made going about their daily routines was nigh deafening. To an ignorant eavesdropper, it would almost sound like a party, with all the shouting, laughing, name-calling, music, and televisions blaring.
Now that it was quiet, before the hustle and bustle of the prison day began, this was JC's favorite time. This was his thinking time. No distractions to interrupt his delicate planning and introspection. During the day, when the cells were open, there wasn't any time to be lost in thought. You had to be on guard twenty-five hours a day. Daydreaming could get you stuck with one of those long metal shanks that were as popular among the inmates as guns are with street gangs. With your head stuck in the clouds, you would never see it coming. That is, until someone stabbed you in the spine or the liver, then walked off, leaving you to bleed to death, while the other inmates ignored your plight for fear of retaliation. Yeah, you had to have a clear head and steer clear of the bullshit if you could. JC knew this for a fact.
His ten years behind the wall had taught him many lessons. Luckily, he'd managed to learn from his mistakes. In the beginning it wasn't easy. He was young and wild when he was first locked into the darkness of prison life. In those days, he had no concept of just how long ten years was for a man to be locked away from the places he knew so well. It had taken quite a bit of adjustment for him to get used to the penitentiary way of life. Over the years, he got into trouble, but only when one of the new kids mistook his laid-back style for weakness. The prison dogs learned early that JC was not to be fucked with, and they respected him for that. They knew he wasn't a cruel man but, on the other side of the coin, he was a relentless, unforgiving, intelligent adversary. During his bid, JC mercilessly squashed any threat to his well-being.
As he swung his long legs off the bunk, the cool morning air quickly cleared the last vestiges of sleep from his mind. He grimaced at the feeling of the cold concrete under the soles of his feet as they touched the floor. On tiptoe, he walked over to the metal washbasin-toilet. Retrieving his solitary face towel from the iron ringlet over the small sink, he turned on the water and dipped the towel into the small bowl. After running the wet towel over his dark, chiseled features, he brushed his teeth and checked his appearance in his small shaving-kit mirror.
As he looked into the mirror, the thought of his imminent release came to mind. The broad smile that lit up his face even managed to make it to his eyes. His smile was rarely seen, but it would put the casual onlooker more in mind of an international model than of an inmate in a maximum-security prison.
With the remnants of his smile still playing at the corners of his mouth, he dropped to the floor and began his morning routine of exercises. After doing one thousand push-ups, a thousand sit-ups, and a thousand stomach crunches, he stood in the middle of his cell, dripping sweat. Even though it had been ten years since the last time he was able to look at himself in a full-length mirror, he admired his body the best he could under the circumstances. The skinny, lanky kid of ten years ago had long since been replaced by a powerful human dynamo, his body honed to stiletto-like perfection. Not only had he used the years behind bars to build his body but he'd stuffed into his mind every bit of information that he could get his hands on. Instead of having his mother scrape together what she could to get him a television set like the other inmates had, he opted to use any monies he received to build his little library. He returned to school and earned his GED, then decided to go even further and attend the college courses offered at the prison. He was awarded a bachelor's degree in constructive sciences and promised himself to return to school someday and get his master's degree, but for now it would have to wait.
After completing his calisthenics, JC toweled off the sweat he'd worked up and sat down on his bunk. He removed a faded picture from the small wooden shelf he'd built in the wood shop. The shelf was rickety and badly in need of a coat of varnish, but that didn't matter. This bookshelf was a symbol; it was the first thing he'd ever built with his own two hands. Holding the picture in the dim light in his cell, he stared at the four boys. This picture was the only thing that made him willing to survive any challenge they could put in front of him in one of the toughest penitentiaries in the country. The photograph showed the boys--now men--who were responsible for his decade of incarceration. These men were supposed to be his friends, but they had poisoned the bond of brotherhood with unmeasured treachery. Richard "Richkid" Kidman, Alonzo "Zo" Johnson, and Eugene "Lil G" Pierce--at one time in his life, these three men were the closest thing that a man could have to brothers.
Now, close to eleven years later, JC's hate for their seditious act had not lessened or dissipated. His hatred had long since blossomed into an intense bonfire of malignancy. JC returned the photograph to its place of prominence on his trophy shelf and retrieved his toilet articles from the small steel table attached to the cell wall. There was nothing else to do, so he resigned himself to waiting for the opening of the cell house doors, so he could leave his tip for a quick shower and breakfast.
The next days of JC's life passed uneventfully. Inmates he'd grown to love and feel a certain amount of kinship for because of their like circumstances knew of his pending release, and many of them wished him well in his return to the outside world. Other convicts emanated jealousy at the fortune of one of their kind being released into society again. But JC didn't pay any attention to their envious vibes. He knew better than to feed into their shit. He'd seen inmates, only days away from release, end up fighting or cutting one of the other inmates and succeed in jagging off their bits. Instead of going home, they ended up in segregation, waiting to see the prison board to find out just how much more time was being added to their sentences. No, JC couldn't see himself going that route. As long as none of these haters touched him, he didn't care how mad they were that he was going home. He was going to keep his nose clean. Mostly, he stayed in his cell and went to chow or the gym only if he was accompanied by his best friend, Rat. Truthfully, in his last few days, his young friend was the only reason he would leave his cell, outside of seeing to his personal hygiene in the shower room or forcing himself to sit with Rat and swallow the tasteless food served in the prison mess hall.
Rat was his constant companion. He had been given his nickname because of his willingness to go into the prison sewer system and retrieve contraband that was flushed down the toilet by the prisoners' visitors. He was so adept at finding the weed, coke, dope, or whatever that any prisoner expecting a package would hire him. The fact that he was honest and never dipped into anyone's packages made him real popular. JC had taken a liking to the tall, fierce youth the week he arrived in the prison. The youngster was definitely nobody's punk. JC witnessed him slap a 260-pound man in the month for disrespecting him and back his play with a twelve-inch shank. When Rat had first arrived in the joint, he was only nineteen years old, but he quickly proved that he was ruthless enough to survive in the maximum-security prison.
. . .
On the eve of his release, Rat, along with a few other inmates, threw JC a small going-home celebration in the prison laundry room. Amidst the large washing machines and the mugginess made by the steam of the gigantic clothes dryers, JC's friends laid out a fairly decent spread for inmates. They had homemade hooch, a few skimpy joints, plenty of cigarettes, cookies, and two large pizzas with everything on them. The pizzas were furnished by the officers on the late shift, because of their intense liking of the tall, dark, quiet-spoken man about to be released; JC never gave them any trouble, which they truly appreciated. The joking amongst themselves and the laughter it inspired put JC in such a good mood that he went to his cell and retrieved a few articles to pass out to the friends he would soon be leaving behind.
After passing out the few nude magazines, cartons of cigarettes, extra toiletries, and books, he hung out for a bit longer before deciding to return to his cell for his last night. "Fellas, I'm about to go lay it down for the night," JC announced. "It was a business doing pleasure with you guys and I'm going to miss you cats."
He was interrupted by hoots and hollers. He put his fingers to his lips. "You niggas better hold it down. Y'all gone get us bumped. You know Officer Smith will act like he ain't never seen us before in his life if we get caught."
His young friend Rat yelled, "Man, fuck Smitty. My nigga going home, what he ain't think that we was gone be happy? You my man, Killa J, and I'm gone miss yo ass."
JC smiled at the open admiration his friend had shown for him. "It's cool, Young Gun. I'mma miss you cats too. But I'm about to go and turn it in."
JC paused to drain the remnants of his large cup of hooch. "Whew, that's some good brew. Donnie, I'm gone miss yo hooch, when I'm in the world. This shit taste like cognac or something."
The tall, rail-thin white man with the long black ponytail extended his right arm and tipped his cup slightly in JC's direction. "Thanks, Killa J," Donnie said. "I knew it would pretty much be your last taste of good stuff before you get out there in the world and start drinking all that rotgut, so I made sure that would be the best batch ever. I spared no expense on you, but I'll make it up on some other motherfucker that wants to buy some brew from me."
Everyone in the room laughed at Donnie's cruel but disturbingly accurate sense of business.
As JC looked around the room at the murderers, thieves, and drug dealers he'd befriended, he felt almost overwhelmed knowing he was going to leave this group of men he'd grown to love and respect over the years. Some of the men were already in the prison when he arrived a decade ago, and some of them would be there long after he was gone, with the exception of his young friend Rat, who would be leaving soon after him. Feeling a sadness begin to disarm him, he mumbled a good-bye and stumbled from the room, feigning drunkenness to mask his emotional departure. With tears in his eyes, he made his way to his cell for the last time.
. . .
After perhaps the longest night of his life, JC was packed and ready to go hours before the guard opened the cell door for him to depart in the morning. As the guard quietly waited for him to grab his things, JC took a last look at his cell, then stepped out of it onto the tier. Before continuing down the gallery, he stopped at the cell juxtaposed to his old one and whispered through the bars at Rat. "Little homie, I'm outta here," he said softly, almost apologetically.
Hearing his friend's voice, Rat fought through the fog in his head caused by an overabundance of homemade liquor from the night before. He hopped to his feet. Shrugging his prison blanket onto the floor and wearing only his boxer shorts, he walked to the cell's bars.
JC looked over at the guard. "Give us a minute, why don't you?" he asked. The indifferent guard stepped a little farther down the gallery and stared off into space.
Digging into his pocket, JC fished out a pack of cigarettes. He removed one for himself, then offered Rat one through the cell bars. Rat accepted the proffered cigarette, then waited for a light. The two friends stood in silence for a moment, just content to puff on their cancer sticks in each other's company.
Finally the guard said, "You two lovebirds got to break it up. That is unless you want to stay, Mr. Collins."
"Fuck you, hack," Rat said, but there wasn't any harshness in his voice. Exhaling the blue-gray cigarette smoke, he looked his older friend up and down. "You better get out of here, Killa J. I'll see you around, baby boy. You be smooth."
JC replied, "Don't sweat the small shit, little brother. You'll be out there in a minute. I'll be waiting on you, Young Gun."
Sticking his closed fist through the bars, JC gave his young partner a pound, then stepped away from his cell door. Following the guard, he continued on to the cell house and over to the prison office. As he got closer to his freedom, a small apprehensive shudder passed through his body. The ominous feeling left almost as suddenly as it came. There wasn't any time for fear now. It was time to put all the shit that he'd planned into effect.
In the prison office, he received his belongings, his state check for twenty-five dollars, and his bus ticket to the Windy City. After shucking his prison blues and dressing in some clothes one of the trustees over at the property office had stolen from one of the newer inmates, he began the long walk through the prison yard to the gate. He was wished good luck by a few convicts out early on the yard performing their jobs.
Before entering the last partition that led to the outer world, Jonathan Collins took one last look at the prison and its grounds. He knew he wouldn't ever come back. If it came to that, he would let the police gun him down in the streets before he returned to this godforsaken place.
As he stood at the heavy metal gate and waited for the guards to open it, he thought, The opening of these gates will open the gates of hell for three niggas. The time was at hand to set his plan in motion and the devil to have his due. He had only a vague idea how to go about doing it, but he would have his day. The very thought of revenge had kept him motivated through his decade of incarceration. Three guys that were once on top of things would all end up on the bottom, looking up at him--a triple take.
Excerpted from Triple Take by Y. Blak Moore. Copyright © 2003 by Yanier Moore. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.