That’s Life by Mark Atley

Punk Noir Magazine

The first punch of the one-two combo thwacks against Dante’s bare open palm, sounding like a wet towel snapping against a thigh. The tangy smell of body odor cuts through the left-over scent of the state laundry detergent as beads of sweat fly off the hitter’s closed fists and forearms, soaking into the dank concrete of the enclosed recreational yard.

​“Good,” Lamar Henry says, watching from the side at a close distance, scrutinizing the hitter’s every move, making sure his elbows are where they should be, tight on the torso, ensuring the kid doesn’t limp wrist it. The power’s there but is he doing it with the proper posture? Does he have a good length between the feet, about shoulder-width apart with feet not in line, weight centered, pressure fifty/fifty on the toes, knees bent?

No, the kid’s posture’s shit. And there’s the kid’s eyes. A lot of guys blink-close their eyes when they take a hit, and some do it when they deliver one. Can’t hit what you can’t see. Did the kid stay locked on his target? Did his eyes give away his intention? They did, but Lamar can only do so much with what he has, and this kid’s eyes speak volumes. So reading him, hesays, “Do it again.”

​The kid looks at him, betraying his distrust of authority, among other things. Lamar doesn’t take it personally. His features remain as they were before the exercise began, placid, neither approving nor condemning—this place has enough of that. He stands, still and erect, with his hands behind the orange two-piece jumpsuit, which looks more like fluorescent scrubs than the body suit garb associated with incarceration in popular entertainment. If there’s anything Lamar’s learned in his time behind bars, it’s that inmates enjoy TV. 

​“I should address your stance,” Lamar says. “But I don’t have the time and you don’t have the patience.”

​“I’ll get it,” the kid says, voice breaking.

“No you won’t,” Lamar says. “You aren’t ready. Not yourpunches, your stance, or your attitude.”

​Dante, the man with the gigantic paws used as targets for the kid’s aggression, snorts. 

​Lamar interprets the big dark man’s grunts. “Dante doesn’t think you will either. He thinks you’re like all the others. You’re all kids. All you new guys. Kids. Even when you are not. Don’t like the footwork. Don’t like learning it. And don’t like remembering it. You’re about to enter a world that doesn’t care about you. You’ve been ejected from the only world where you matter. Now you don’t matter. Now you’re nothing. You’re never going to be seen as anything other than what you are and what you are is someone who’s going to grow very accustomedto the color orange.”

The opening of That’s Life from old Blue Eyes plays inLamar’s mind. “Look kid,” he says, “if you’re destined to spend several years locked up, you better learn some hard life lessons and learn them quick. Maybe if someone had sat you down, actually taught you a thing or two, you might not be in this mess. I’m trying to teach you how to defend yourself.”

​“I can do this,” the kid says, unsure.

​“If you were in a boxing gym,” Lamar says, “they’d tell you that when you build a house, you don’t start with the roof.You start with the foundations. They’d have you working on your stance, stepping forward and back, to the sides, while maintaining a certain width between your feet. You don’t have time for that shit. In a real gym, you might not throw a punch for weeks.”

​“But we’re not in a real gym,” the kid says. His oranges are two sizes too small for his robust frame. 

​“No, we are not,” Lamar says. He remembers when he met the kid. What he looked like. Face the size of a small honeydew melon. The coloring something from an impressionist painter working through a dark period, blacks, blues, greens, and yellows. A very dark period. 

​He knew what happened to the kid. A couple of gang members got a hold of him in a cell. He owed them money andhe mistook their intentions for something else. Then beat him senseless with the p-trap from under the sink when the guards weren’t looking. Rolled him under a bunk while the guards did their rounds and then beat him again. The kid walked around like a whipped puppy for days while waiting for the goose egg to go away and his natural pasty face coloring to return. But the kid was a standup guy. Detention officers asked him about his injuries, and he said he fell down the stairs. 

​Lamar liked that. The kid had all the reasons in the world to tell but he didn’t.

In the days before he started working with the kid, Lamarsat on the table, read, and watched the pod, contemplating his time away from his home. He perched atop the table like a bird of prey, shoulders hunched, relaxed, waiting for the bus ride back to his home, a place much like this, but very different, where he didn’t have to compete with these new guys. Everyone, where he’s from, knows who he is and that’s how it should be. 

When the kid offered him some coffee, the last of his commissary, while they stood in line at the hot pot, Lamardecided to teach the kid a few things—because, despite the savage beating, the kid maintained his goodness. He offered the coffee because, at heart, he’s still a good kid. Stupid, stubborn, but a good kid.

A long time ago, Lamar promised himself he would try to make a difference where he could. Like most guys. Some vow to write books to help others. Some devote themselves to God. Everyone finds religion. For Lamar, it was freeing his mind when his body would never know free will again. 

So when the kid offered him the coffee, he accepted, invited the kid over for a talk, asked him to stay close. Lamarpointed out that when he was close to him the gang members didn’t give him any trouble. 

Then one day, Lamar asked the kid if he wanted to learn how to box. Said he didn’t have much time here, but he could teach the kid enough to keep him from having a repeat beating. Predators, humankind no different, like easy prey. Not something that bites back. 

The kid agreed and here he is, throwing punches into thebehemoth’s hands.

​Of course, Lamar knows this kid won’t want to do the foot drills. None of them do. He won’t want to put the work in. Not the real work. He’ll do what’s instinctive. Like most guys, this kid put his dominant arm out front, dangling it there for anyone with any sort of skill to disassemble it in moments. Lamar fixed that. Then he gave him his five points. Teaching him how to jab, throw an uppercut, block a punch or two, move, and protect himself. 

Lamar tells him now. “Fighting’s a lot about the body. Everything has to work together. Makes sense, much like life. Look, keep the dominant arm in the back so when you throw it, it comes from way back there, shoulders rotating, hips snapping, legs thrusting it forward. Let your body do the work. You have to have time to build up speed, using all the weight and leverage from the entire body, like a batter does in baseball.”

“This isn’t baseball,” the kid says dropping his hands, defeated. 

Dante playfully swipes a large paw at the kid’s face to hammer the point he should never stop protecting himself. The kid bats it away. Both men smile. 

“No it isn’t,” Lamar says, not smiling. Frustration creepsinto his voice. “This is your life. The rest of it. Just don’t stand with your feet square, or sideways, because if someone hits you and your weight goes back, you could roll an ankle. Same for being on your toes. If you are on your heels when you get hit, you get knocked off balance, and then you’re fucked. If your weight is on your toes when you get hit, you shift back onto your heels and stay balanced. You won’t remember any of this shit but that doesn’t mean you haven’t heard it. If I can’t teach you then I need to at least mention it.”

The kid’s eyes blossom red, like he’s about to cry.

“Why don’t we take a break?” Lamar says, snapping his eyes toward Dante, communicating something only adults understand. “We’ve been at this for a while and I’m sure Dante wants to get some of his regular workout in.” 

Dante nods his big head. 

“I don’t want to take a break,” the kid says. 

“I’m not asking you,” Lamar says. 

Dante leaves the small square concrete rec yard to do his walk around the pod. At Tulsa County Jail, the pod can house up to a hundred and twenty inmates but usually runs seventy-five to ninety, with two stories and cells housing two inmates to a cell running from A to X, with the second story, referred to as the balcony, running from AA to XX, with two stairways on either end of the balcony, fifteen stairs each. 

Dante’s dedication and fitness are what attracted Lamar to him. They hit it off. It didn’t take much convincing to enlist his help even if the big guy doesn’t say much. Lamar figures Dante wanted the boxing lessons too. The big man moves slow, but he works hard. From nine to nine, with an hour break in the middle, Dante moves like a slow-rolling locomotive, up the steps, down the steps, to his cell, where he knocks out twenty-five push-ups, sit-ups, and other bodyweight type exercises, and then back out of the cell, walking the tight confines of the pod, doing it all over again, because running’s against the rules, but no one says you can’t walk.

With the big man gone, Lamar drops some of his tough-guy demeanor, leveling with the kid. “Look, I don’t know how much time I have with you. They brought me here to talk about something I don’t have any intention of discussing. They did it as a fuck you. Move me from my prison. Bring me here. Make me sit in the box, jury and judge looking at me, and ask me questions I can’t and won’t answer. Sure, I could say what I know, but that’s not the point. They don’t want to hear it. They know I won’t say it. All this, bringing me here back to your old-fashion county jail is a big fuck you.”

“So,” the kid says, shrugging. 

“So, use it as a lesson in you don’t have a fucking life anymore. They control everything.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

Lamar sighs. The kid is on the verge of tears and telling him why Lamar is here doesn’t answer what’s going on inside the kid. He knows the kid had court this morning and missed his morning cardio session with Dante.

What Lamar feared must have come true. The kid’s been condemned. A long sentence, at this kid’s age, is a life sentence. It matters not his age; he’ll not breathe free air until he’s an old man and that might as well be a life sentence. 

“Tell me about it,” Lamar says. 

“I don’t want to talk about it,” the kid says.

“They find you guilty?” 

“I didn’t do it,” the kid says, reflexively.

“You didn’t do what?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

Lamar thinks the statement over. “Yes it does,” he says. “I did what they say I did. I beat a guy to death. A buddy of mine and me did it together. It was one of those things. Just happened. We tried to hide the body, took him out to a field. It was one of those kill or be killed things. I’ve spent the last twenty-five years paying for it. But do you know the difference between you and me?”

“What?”

“I’ve accepted it,” Lamar says. “I know what I did. That was the first hurdle, I guess. Admit to what you did. Not to them. Never admit a fucking thing to them, but I had to admit it to myself.”

The kid is silent. 

So Lamar asks, “Did you do what they said you did?”

“I didn’t mean to stab the guy—”

Lamar holds up a hand. “No, don’t tell me what they say you did. I’m asking you. You know why you are here. Did you do it? I don’t want to or need to know what it is.” 

Lamar knows what it is though. He saw the news story about the kid’s trial. One of those update-type pieces where they show the kid’s mugshot and tell polite society that the trial’s underway. 

“I want you to look within yourself and be honest with yourself.”

The kid doesn’t say anything. 

Lamar knows guys that shouldn’t be in prison but that doesn’t keep lost souls from ending up there. He knew a marineonce, a dumb kid who was very much a marine, taught how to kill but not how to reassimilate into society or how to deal with the fact he had killed. Then he got drunk and fulfilled his programming, smashing his car headfirst into oncoming traffic because this country abandoned him in the meatgrinder that is a war on an idea. That man didn’t need prison, he needed help, but instead, he was sentenced to years behind bars. Many of the men and, Lamar assumes, women behind bars are there as causalities of wars or ideas. Lamar is no different—the guy he killed was his drug dealer who shoved a gun under his chin and threatened to pull the trigger when Lamar refused to pay him the money he wasn’t owed. 

“I know it’s hard, but you need to figure out who you are going to be now.”

“I didn’t fight it,” the kid says, nearly sinking within himself. “I mean I did but…”

Which means he went to trial but did so with a shitty attorney aka a public defender. Might as well admitted his guiltat the beginning and saved everyone a lot of time and money. Not all of them are bad but some are. 

The kid says, “I was looking at life. If I had cooperated—’

Lamar cuts him off. “What the fuck’s wrong with you, don’t you ever say that word again. You can say cunt before you can say the C-word.”

“But I didn’t,” the kid says, “I didn’t take the deal. I couldn’t. I had to go the whole way.”

“What they offer?” Lamar asks. What was his opportunity costs? What option did he loose? 

“I didn’t take the offer,” the kid says like it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t. “I went the whole way. Jury and everything. All over in less than three days. What the fuck was I thinking? The prosecutor told me I should have taken the deal, said I’d regret it every day after twenty-five years, telling me the next twelve to fifteen were going to be the hardest time I ever did because I could have been free, not dependent upon parole, but fucking free. I didn’t believe him. I said no. I kept thinking maybe they’d understand, see it my way, figure out I’m not a bad guy, I just… I don’t know how to explain it.”

“You don’t have to explain,” Lamar says. “Not to me. Theyconvicted you.”

“Yeah,” the kid says. “Didn’t even take an hour, I thought, maybe I get to have a good lunch, but no, I eat some shit from a brown paper bag, tube turkey with an orange and a hard roll, and you know what? I thought that could be the greatest meal of my life, but it turned out to be the worst. I’m halfway through everything when my attorney shows back in my holding cell. Says I need to pack all that junk up. I didn’t even have to ask him. I knew. His face said it all. If they come back this soon, then I’m fucked. I was fucked.”

Lamar nods. “So let me ask you, did you do it?”

The kid turns away. “What does it matter? Whether I did it or not, it doesn’t matter, not now, not ever.”

“It does matter.”

“Why!” the kid snaps. “Why the fuck do you care? Why the fuck would it matter?”

“Because there is a life after this,” Lamar says, echoing what the detective told him when he sat him down in the room and read him his rights. He tells the kid this. “At the trial, they said it happened and I watched the video of it happening, but Idon’t remember the detective reading me my Miranda Rights. What I remember was how I felt when I finally admitted what happened, said it was a killed or be killed kinda deal, which the detective accepted, not because I gave the man what he wanted, but because it was true. Then he said, that’s the first step. That Lamar…me—different from this me—didn’t know what he meant. But I know now. I know how I felt after admitting the truth. Better. Relaxed. That was the first night I slept in months. It wasn’t a great sleep, but it was something. Something better than anything I had. Then, as I felt relief, the detective told methere’s life after this and offered to buy me a chicken sandwich, a sorta last meal kind of thing.

“And that was something that bounced around in my brain as I went through the trial and the sentencing. I wasn’t going to plead guilty to murder and take a life sentence deal. I would fight it, but I had a shitty public defender who nearly sweet-talked me into pleading guilty.

“The detective said the same thing the jury said when they finally came back with their verdict, which my attorney relayed to me, if I hadn’t tried to hide the body in a field, they might have ruled me not guilty or convicted me of a lesser charge, but it was the business about hiding the crime because I was a stupid kid—like you—a stupid, stupid kid who panicked and didn’t know better, who thought a simpleton’s plan would prevent what happened from happening.”

The kid slyly turns his face back to Lamar, lines up his body, and assumes the stance Lamar has drilled into him over the last week or two. 

“Are you ready to try again?” Lamar asks, taking his position in front of the kid. 

“I am,” the kid says, strength raising within him. His words communicate more than his preparedness to go again. He’sadmitting his guilt, internally, and to Lamar.

Lamar smiles and holds out his palms, he’s not Dante, his hands aren’t as big. He’ll teach the kid what he can, starting with the basics, and then if there’s the time, everything else because that’s life. 

“Again!” Lamar barks.

#

Mark Atley is the author of The Olympian, American Standard, and the forthcoming A Bright Young Man, as well as a handful of short fiction. Mark promises to entertain his readers and will choose real other drama every time. He works as a detective for a suburb of Tulsa, OK and has dedicated his life to crime.