by Peter Jordan
Thomas ‘Boom Boom’ DeGale was a promising super-middleweight, with a pro record of nine and zero. He was twenty-two years old and lived with his mother and sister. His sister was seventeen years old. She’d just met a guy twice her age. The guy was leery. His sister came home crying, bruised, bleeding from her lip. De Gale told her to wait with their mother. When he’d finished, the guy was put on life support.
DeGale was charged; he had no criminal record, but the man he beat was fighting for his life. The attorney said if the defendant died he could be facing the chair. He got five years. ‘Five years is the best we could have hoped for,’ said the attorney. ‘You could be out in half that time.’
He went into the State Pen. It was a whole new world. He knew some guys on the street, but he didn’t know anyone on the inside. He was placed on the sixth floor. The sixth floor was for inmates who had committed violent crimes. It was an open cell—a dormitory— that housed forty-eight men. There were two toilets for those forty-eight men.
DeGale sat on his bunk. For the first few days that’s all he did: sit on his bunk and try to come to terms with the enormity of it all.
At night, when things got quieter, he lay down and read Ring Magazine. The light that reached him from the outside spotlights meant he was never in complete darkness.
He’d been there a week.
Three guys stood round his bed. He knew they were gang members. They had tattoos on their arms, necks. The rolled up sleeves and V-neck of the orange prison vest framed masses of blue-black prison ink. One of the three men tapped the sole of his bare foot. De Gale swung his legs around and put both feet on the prison floor.
‘You know anyone in here?’ the guy asked.
‘What you get?’
‘What I get? I got five years.’
‘Long time, man…long time on your own.’
One of them picked up Ring Magazine. ‘You like to box?’
DeGale looked at him but he didn’t answer the man’s question. He knew there was trouble coming and there was nothing he could say or do to stop it. The guy began shadow boxing. His stance and balance were all wrong.
‘I said, you like to box?’
DeGale looked from the shadow boxer to the one standing over him. He was ready to fight. A part of him welcomed it. It was a break from the constant thinking and the fear.
‘Put the magazine down,’ he said.
The guy standing in front of DeGale hit him hard. He rolled backwards with the punch, off the bed, and landed on his feet, filled with adrenaline now. The second guy made a move for him. DeGale shifted his feet and hit him square on the chin. When the third guy took a shot he took it and countered with a blow to the side of his head. Now it was the guy who did all the talking, the one who’d thrown the first punch. DeGale let him come to him then he pounded him, first to the body, then to the head. When he stopped for a breather the other two were already on him. The remainder of the fight was a mixture of wrestling and DeGale using his boxing skill when he got a bit of distance between himself and the three of them.
He woke up in the infirmary. He hurt all over. His right hand was so swollen he couldn’t make a fist with it. On his left hand, two of the fingers were taped together. He had a cut to the top of his head. He ran his fingers over it. The wound had been stapled. The hair shaved. He remembered a kick.
The other guy was also in the infirmary, the one who’d done all the talking. He was at the far end of the room.
DeGale got up off the bunk, walked to the sink and filled it with cold water, placed his swollen hands in the sink. For a full ten minutes he stood there, bent over, his hands in the cold water. He was a quick healer: in a week, ten days he’d be good.
He was given a questionnaire asking who had beaten up on him. It was a standard questionnaire with tick boxes, and dotted lines where an inmate might like to elaborate. DeGale ticked the box saying he could not identify his assailants.
When he got out of the infirmary someone came to see him, an older guy, the man was calm, he had presence. ‘Five years, huh,’ he said.
DeGale didn’t say a thing.
‘You do some boxing on the outside?’
‘This place is a fucking zoo,’ said DeGale.
The man cleared his throat. ‘The prison administration states that having inmates live this way encourages co-operation and healthy peer relationships.’
DeGale didn’t smile.
‘I could use someone like you,’ the guy said.
DeGale looked through the grilled widow at a laundry van.
‘I need you to do a job on someone. You agree, your time in here will pass and no one will touch you.’
‘I’m no killer.’
The man laughed. ‘Then you’re the only one in here who isn’t. I don’t need a killer.’ He pointed over to a little guy who sat on a bunk, across the dorm, watching. The guy had three ink tears on his face. Each tear represented a life he’d taken while inside.
‘If I wanted him killed I could send Tino with a blade. No…I want you to beat up on him.’
DeGale didn’t say anything. He was thinking.
‘That’s all you have to do.’
‘Just mark him, show we got to him.’
‘And then after that?’ said DeGale.
‘After that you can lie back and read Ring Magazine. Hell, I’ll even get you a subscription.’
‘Who is this guy?’
‘He’s not on this floor.’
‘I’m not interested in gangs,’ said DeGale. ‘I just want to do my time and get out of here.’
‘You change your mind…you come see me…my name’s Harlan.’
DeGale wrote a letter to his mother telling her he was in fear for his life. His mother phoned the prison administration, was put on hold, told it would be looked into, that there was due process.
His mother came to visit.
It was a six hour round trip on public transport. She was shocked to see the state of her son. De Gale told his mother he was fine; he just needed her to write a letter to the Governor. His mother wrote the letter that day.
He was moved to the fifth floor.
It took him three days until he could get the guy. Mostly he hit him on either side of the eyes, marking him, but he didn’t do any lasting damage. It was a perfect job. It sent out a good message.
DeGale was put in the segregation unit for one month. When he got out he was moved back to the sixth floor. When he walked in there were two copies of Ring Magazine on his bed.
DeGale and Harlan became friends. DeGale learnt things. He also learnt that a bit of him had died. He asked his mother and little sister not to visit, he asked them to write.
When he finally got out he took a cab straight to his mother’s. His mother hugged him, then stood back and asked, ‘What have they done to you, Thomas?’
His little sister couldn’t stop talking. She said how unfair it was he had to do the whole five years. She felt so bad. She thought his shaved head and goatee suited him. She didn’t like the single tear tattoo on his face. But she was glad prison hadn’t changed him.
Peter Jordan is this year’s winner of the Bare Fiction prize. In addition, he came second in this year’s Fish Flash Competition. He has received various awards, including a literary bursary from The Lisa Richards Agency, while taking an MA in Creative Writing. Three Arts Council grants followed. His work has appeared in numerous literary magazines and journals, including Flash: The International Short Story Magazine, The Pygmy Giant, Flash500, Thresholds, Litro, The Incubator, The Honest Ulsterman, Dogzplot, the Nottingham Review, Spelk and The Avatar Review. Nine of his stories are in anthologies. He has taken time out from a PhD in Belfast’s Seamus Heaney Centre to complete the edits on his short story collection, Untouchable, which will be published this autumn by Kingston University Press. You will find him on twitter @pm_jordan.