The Burden of Gratitude: The Chronicles of Bayboro Correctional Facility II (2014, Treadmill Books LLC) presents the novelette of the title, four short stories, and a story excerpt by Bela Abel. This work is the second in a Chronicles trilogy.
The author informs us in his Foreward that he did not compose the events depicted in the tales; he “witnessed” them. They are fictionalized accounts and the words that convey them flowed from “some ethereal pre-existence”. Bela Abel’s tales are not so much about incarceration as they are about the consequences that confinement imposes on the psyche.
“Imprisonment is a kind of salutary impairment. It might be useful in the short run, but with longer times it carries nothing but harm.”
The stories are rock ribbed with particulars of prison life: cell dimensions, daily routines, lockdowns, prisoner transport, hospital and exercise facilities, bunk assignments, chow, work duties, jail currency (packs of tobacco; bags of instant coffee.) The look and feel of iron bars imbedded in concrete, encircling fences, coils of razor wire, guard towers, and tantalizing glimpses of ordinary life carried on outside the prison walls emphasize the enforced claustrophobia of state-ordained confinement and the perils of interaction among men who can escape neither their surroundings nor each other.
“Prison existence is like living on a tectonic fault line… there is so much built-up pressure there.”
- Mama’s Loving Boy
Jason Falk, inmate librarian for more than ten years of the Bayboro Correctional Facility law library, acts as informal counselor for convicts under the impression that they may have a legal dodge to escape their sentences. Falk is a patient listener, but he has no happy answers for any of them.
Falk meets Whittie Alders, a young white man who claims he had sex with his mother, then killed her. Alders is neither bright nor communicative, so Falk, fascinated with his story, ploddingly teases narrative fragments from him. Eventually, Whittie’s disconsolate situation infects Falk with despair. He flees from the library, only to encounter an old black man, weeping. Upon inquiry, the man reports having learned that his mother has just died only two months before his release, after waiting 35 years.
Whittie is empty of remorse for his matricide. The weeping convict, having served his sentence, will have nothing but remorse to accompany his freedom.
2. The Mystery of Butt-Naked Chief Big Hawk
Chief Big Hawk stands naked, planted on a central corridor with his arms crossed over his chest, oblivious to the congress of inmates passing to and fro, “…above this crowd, solid and still like a rock island midstream in an overflowing mountain river,” calmly staring into the distance.
Abel etches the Chief with lithic figures. “His skin is reddish like those famous rocks in southern Utah.” “He has sharp features as if his face was hewn from those southwestern rocks with a rough chisel.”
Mark, obsessed with curiosity but lacking the temerity to approach the Chief, consults with fellow inmates. He apologizes, “I am just trying to understand something that seems strange to me.”
Aubrey Stokes, Bayboro’s oldest inmate, warns him. “Your curiosity will undo you! The rule of survival in prison is: mind your own business and don’t meddle with something that you do not understand!”
Ollie Lavender opines that the Chief is homosexual. Professor Loon tells Mark that the Chief is a Medicine Man and he is therefore not bound by the Adamic taboos against nudity observed by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Mark’s cellmate Devon believes that the Chief is offering his penis as a landing limb for “Woggyboos.”
Chief Big Hawk proves to be very approachable. He fashions a clay pipe and shares the “calumet filled with Chief’s magic tobacco.” The Chief satisfies Mark’s curiosity with an object lesson about vessels (pipes/bodies) and the spirits (smoke/soul) they contain. Mark learns, in the same way that Carlos Castaneda did in his studies of Native Americans, that “The world was infinite and beautiful and there were no fences which could contain us forever.”
3. The Price of Freedom
Jorge Sanchez, an attendant at the Bayboro Fort Zoo and Natural History Museum, happens to be an ex-convict who served 7 years at the Bayboro Correctional Facility for “receiving stolen property.” He was never even suspected for his 42 successful bank robberies whose swag he invested prudently, depositing accrued dividends in offshore accounts now worth $7 million. He plans to use his “mazuma” for retirement on the Mediterranean island of Formentera.
In this poignant inversion fable, enriched with clever correspondence between liberty and finance, Jorge finds his sympathies engaged by Antipous, an orangutan from Borneo. A zoo is, after all, an animal jail whose inmates are 100% innocent. Jorge ponders, “Is being a hominid a crime?” He resolves to spend part of his fortune to liberate Antipous.
Freeing a great ape and returning him to his natural habitat is a daunting and expensive proposition, and Jorge prepares for it with all the meticulous care that made him a prosperous bank robber. The elaborate caper is complicated, well-crafted, suspenseful, and grips our attention as tightly as the totemic Morgan silver dollar Antipous always clutches in his fist.
4. Full Moon, Blue Room, Blue Angel
Fulmar Lapp Clerjaud, a 37-year inmate of Bayboro, lies dying of lung cancer in the Blue Room, a hospice within the prison hospital. His last anxious wish is for one final cigarette.
He gazes through a window at the Moon, so bereft of energy that he feels its tidal effect on the fluids in his own body. He contrasts the purity, serenity, and eternity of the Moon with corporal corruption and decay, excrescences and odors, and ephemeral human concerns.
Fulmar attempts a desperate trade of his valuable Blue Angel watch with a correctional officer for a pack of smokes; he is ripped off. In terminal despair, he is visited by Lady Indigo, another “blue angel” who grants him a final wish.
5. The Burden of Gratitude
In a book called The Parables of Old Damascus Montgomery Lee Bobo reads the story of Agneus, a merchant of Aleppo, encumbered by a “death debt” he owes a shepherd who saved his life.
Bobo is an inmate at Bayboro Correctional who has managed to get himself into hock with Red, a procurer of items not customarily available behind bars at exorbitant prices enforced by the brutal Moe.
“In prison, majority clings to its ilk.” Bobo would like to do his time with as little social intercourse as possible, but crosses swords with two gay inmates. He assaults one over a misunderstanding in the shower. The other saves his life when he takes a beating from Moe. Now Bobo has a “death debt” of his own.
The Age of Manaclethnos, a book loaned him by Aubrey Stokes, teaches Bobo that the old era of iron shackles has been superseded by the “felicitous enthrallment” of masters enslaving people by means of economic dependence, social stricture, and legal conformity. Observing untamed nature from the prison yard, he notices flocks of geese diverting their migration path to avoid flying over the prison, the mating dance of bumblebees beyond the fences, and the unimpeded flight of sparrows through coils of concertina razor wire.
Bela Abel’s fables are constructions of wry juxtapositions, sharp ironies, and empathetic warmth executed in supple language that encompasses both scientific precision and organic imagery. He is a superb storyteller with a masterful grasp of pace and evocative characterizations. Deeply respectful of nature and bemused by our human delusion that we somehow exist apart from it, he observes: Homo sapiens is “a cloud of intelligent locusts, universal consumers, and destroyers.”
Fortunately, for the sake of all other life forms on the planet: “Rain… With equal indifference, the rain washes away the footprints left by good men and thugs. Nature does not care about our daily struggles and the infrequent right things which we do… Rain does not care.”
(Review posted on Amazon.com, November 16, 2016)