Thursday, June 1, 2017

Tough Guys Always Live With Mom: CriMemoir by Jonathan Ashley

Jonathan Ashley writes tough, vulnerable and funny fiction about criminals and outlaws of various stripes and I very much enjoyed getting to know him personally around a N@B event in St. Louis last year. During that time he talked some about his own brushes with crime and punishment and that made him a natural go-to for me while I was doing Man Out of Prison Month. He responded to my imploring with a piece I thought better fit the CriMemoir series.

Ashley's first two novels are victims of the 280 Steps implosion, but his new book South of Cincinnati is coming this summer from Down & Out Books (hopefully with reprints of The Cost of Doing Business and Out of Mercy soon to follow).

If you live on the East Coast you may have been lucky enough to catch him during the N@B Crawl that took place May 19-21 in Richamond, Washington D.C. and Baltimore hosted by Eryk Pruitt, E. A. Aymar and Nik Korpon respectively. For those of us who couldn't be there Reverend Eryk put together this video of his experience.
Alright, Jon, the floor is yours.

Tough Guys Always Live with Mom
By Jonathan Ashley

I will warn you in advance, I am not a tough guy.

Most ex-cons like to pride themselves on their grit and tolerance for pain, perhaps the few morsels of character and integrity that the system, in all its heinous asininity and various guises (orphanages, prisons, DOC compliant rehabilitation facilities) cannot easily steal from you. There is obviously no shortage of psychological dividends to be proffered, if  a man can still preserve even the most superficial sense of identity once he has been leveled spiritually and financially as most prisoners find themselves when cut off from society for an indefinite amount of days or years. I sometimes regret not trying harder to assimilate into the jail milieu of urban enthusiasm and ultra-violence, but, if I'm being honest, I was scared shitless. I was terrified of jail and all the possibilities that I faced now that I was living in a cell the size of a gutted meth trailer with eleven other men, ages varying from 18 to 70, their crimes unconfirmable; unless someone got real creative and asked a loved one over the phone to do some digging, a convict couldn’t be sure if he was sleeping two feet from a drunk driver or a habitual sex offender.

I learned quickly to keep to myself, and to read the worst westerns and romances ever committed to pulpy paper. If I had my head stuck in a book, a lot of my peers forgot about me. It was a good thing. too. Because the few times anyone tried me, I either backed down or went for a weapon. And backing down from a fight follows you in jail. If you blink when a man clenches his fists, everyone else knows you’re a pushover and will steal you blind and, depending on the facility, fuck you silly.

I was a coward from the first shot of heroin I mainlined to the last day of my four month incarceration, when a woman who loved me very much got up at five AM and poured herself into a one of the most gorgeous black dresses I've ever seen to come retrieve her deadbeat paramour from the Fayette County Detention Center. How did I repay this lovely woman who'd gone to such pains to welcome me back to the world my first day as a free man? Within half an hour, I abandoned her at her house to go score. I'll never forget her crying, sitting on the bedside, pretending like she believed me when I said I was going out for cigarettes, despite the full pack she'd bought me on her way to the jail.

I was a coward when, during visits from my mother - she'd paid a friend to drive her half an hour to see me twice a week and donated a large percent of her retirement and social security checks to my commissary books - I'd promise that I'd finally surrendered, that I was done with drugs and alcohol and everything that accompanied substance abuse. Even as the woeful words would leave my mouth, sitting across from the woman who carried me in her womb for nine months and now wept over what had resulted, i knew the first chance I got, I would get high again.

There is so little romance in the bent life that, often, I curse films and novels that try to get it right. While there are moments in Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black that do sufficient justice to those of us who've taken the low roads of petty crime and narcotic self-immolation, auteurs rarely capture the daily malaise of petty criminal existence, the sadly predictable disappointments, the nearly unbelievably trite disagreements that result in disfiguring or fatal conflict. However, one novel, the only book I’ve read as many times as Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, paints so accurate a portrait of the kind of life I’d shortly led, and the lucid nightmares to which so many of my now absent friends so easily and sadly resigned themselves.

Don Carpenter, the writer of Hard Rain Falling, like John Kennedy Toole, committed suicide, and one can almost see why after enduring the post-beat Californian’s honest rendition of street life and prison existence. I remember finishing the book on the Croton-Harmon line from New York City to Yonkers where, believe it or not, one of my oldest friends, a policeman, lived and semi-regularly sheltered me from the consequences of my intransigent lifestyle and the grim fates I’d always just barely escaped before calling him in desperation.

I wept openly at least three different times during my silent public readings of the urban masterpiece, in cabs, trains, on park benches. I must’ve looked like a complete whack job to passersby unfamiliar with untreated addiction and the post-traumatic stress of a lifetime of recurring institutionalization. I wept for Carpenter’s lost prisoners, currently incarcerated or struggling to reform on the outside. And I wept for all the tragedies I was forced to remember in reading of these small, disparate lives.

There is one memory which I believe Carpenter would’ve appreciated. A few summers prior to my last bender in New York and my first reading of Hard Rain Calling, I was dog sitting for my father in Lexington, Kentucky, high as groceries, not a care in the world nor a logical thought in my cranium. I received a phone call from one of my least favorite drug dealers. We’ll call him Patrick. Pat and I had met during my four month vacay at FCDC. He was serving a sanction for pissing dirty for the P.O. and I was serving out my misdemeanor time for the same infraction. We kept in touch. When Pat was released, he moved in with his mother. Pat was definitely an ex-con deeply devoted to the pathos of his chosen lifestyle. When we were cell mates, Pat liked to pick on this guy with a clearly undiagnosed mental illness. He’d also steal Ramen noodles from his bunk mate and punch anyone who so much as stared at him for a moment too long. He was tough, but he lived with mom. Now that I think about it, all the tough guys I met always seemed to live with mom.

“If you give me and my girl a ride to re-up, I’ll throw you a tenth of the girl and a tenth of the boy,” Pat said. The guy bore an uncanny resemblance to that British actor with the doghound countenance and boy-band hairdo who played the title role in Preacher. Pat had looks, muscles, charm, but an IQ so low, a medical professional would likely consider the young Caucasian hard-case legally retarded.

Tonight, Pat was offering me free heroin and crack for a six-mile drive and, so he said, maybe thirty minutes of my time. What he did not tell me, not until too late, was that, when we met the two dope importers off Leestown Road on a desolate stretch of suburbia in decline, he planned to approach the window of the white Cadillac, hurriedly hand the big black man a roll of money, and then sprint back to my truck and order me to floor it.

He’d handed his supplier a fifty wrapped around a bunch of ones, acting as if every bill in the wad was the same denomination. We’d just robbed a man whose name haunted the ghetto streets of central Kentucky, a man who’d murdered witnesses before they could testify against him and beaten junkies half to death over a twenty-five dollar debt.

And here he was calling my dealer’s cell phone repeatedly, texting threatening messages, promising to only murder the girlfriend and not rape her first if Pat had me turn the truck around now to return the dope.

“Fuck him,” Pat said. He snorted a line of the heroin off of one of my CD cases then handed the broken plastic, atop which he’d sat the two bags containing the crack and the H, to his smelly, greasy twenty-one-year-old girlfriend who’d been rambling incoherently and alternating between bouts of hysterical weeping and uncontrollable laughter that sounded like a mutilated Hyena howling at the unjust heavens.

I kind of blacked out at this point –I’d been heavily into my drug of choice for several days in a row and now had added crack cocaine and liquor to the mix. When I came to I was alone, spread across the love seat of the car. With my head hanging off the side of the seat and my face pointed out the open driver’s doorway, Pat and his stinky lady friend appeared upside down as they fought in the middle of a cul de sac that bookended some darkened suburban street. Homeowners had gathered near the sidewalk to observe the spectacle of the two crack heads breaking down like federal witnesses. I could see why such a show would be hard to miss. How often do we get to see people, drug addicts or tax-payers, surrender to public nervous breakdowns?

“Where’s my dope?” he asked her. Then he backhanded her and approached the driver’s seat, searching the floorboards frantically for anything that even remotely resembled the white and brown chunks with which so many people I had loved, over the years, used to kill themselves.

The girlfriend stepped behind Pat, massaging his shoulder for a moment and begging him to calm down.

“You let me blame all my boys for stealing my shit all those times.” He turned to face her. “You even tried to blame Jon tonight.”

“He took it,” she wagged her index finger in Pat’s face, “not me.”

Pat hit her again, this time with a closed fist.

While she dropped to her knees, I sat upright and tried to, with what subterfuge a nodding-off junkie can possibly summon, slide toward the wheel and the keys still in the ignition.

More people had gathered outside. Some of them were on their cell phones.

I considered making a break for it, just abandoning Sid and Nancy to their own devices and the police that would surely arrive soon. But, Pat had been good to me, for a dope dealer, that is. “We gotta go,” I said. Pat was now under the car, feeling around for the dope he probably figured his girl had tossed the moment she saw how far off the deep end she’d driven her sugar daddy.

Pat rose and leaned into the car and hissed, “We ain’t going nowhere until I find my dope.”

The girl was still on her knees, crying, “I didn’t take it.”

“Shut up, whore,” he said, stepping toward her.

Before I had to watch him rough the girl up again and live with more of my own cowardice for not intervening, I got behind the wheel, started to turn the key in the ignition.

“Motherfucker,” Pat screamed, knocking me across the seat with one punch and retrieving the keys. He ordered the girlfriend to get in the car then jumped behind the wheel himself, gunning the engine and speeding away right as the sirens sounded in the distance. He turned down a few small streets before finding another cul-de-sac and parking. He hit her again. He hit me again. He told her to pull out her knife and to watch me. He demanded my wallet and I handed it over. He said, “You… Jon, you made me hit her. You took my dope and let her take a beating and now you’re gonna pay to set things right. Baby, you twist that knife into his stomach if he tries to drive off without us.”

“The girl’s been stealing from you ever since you started in with her.” I couldn’t hold my tongue. I’d been punched, threatened, and robbed, and now I’d be the soberest of our unwitting band of moronic rabble-rousers.

He hit me again. I clenched a fist to strike back but she placed the blade of the stiletto against my cheek.

Then came my saving grace. “Get behind the wheel and start the car,” he ordered me as he exited and counted the twenties he’d taken from my wallet. “Be ready when I come out.”

I did as I was told and watched him walk away. I turned to the girl in the passenger seat, her right leg hanging out of the truck. She stared at me with disinterested eyes and began to nod, or, perhaps, pass out from the blunt force trauma to the head she’d suffered. The knife fell from her grip and I immediately started the truck. As I edged along the dead end, she came to and screamed to her boyfriend, “He’s leaving.”

Pat turned from the door he’d been knocking on and begun running down the drive.

I floored it as I swung the wheel and she flew out of the open passenger doorway, slamming into the trunk of a parked Volkswagon. I laughed my ass off. It looked like something from the three stooges.

I didn’t look back. I heard Pat cursing me and threatening to kill me and I just kept laughing as I turned onto the first street I came to, gripping the knife in my hand and knowing that if they came to my place to exact any vengeance, neither would ever lay a hand on me again. I didn’t feel like such a coward, at least for a few moments, after besting the two junkie robbers.

Pat went to jail that night. His girlfriend called me the next morning, offering sexual favors for some drug money. I said, “I take it you didn’t break anything when I tossed you out of that moving vehicle,” then hung up.

I hear Pat’s finally getting out of jail again. After our mutual release date in March, when, laughingly, we’d walked together out of the Lexington jail off Old Frankfort Pike with its medieval stone façade and sinister gothic steeples, he had only remained on the outside for a total of two months. I never went back. Partially because nearly killing that girl and nearly being murdered by her abusive boyfriend were enough, thus far, to shock me into the desire to live as square and straight a life as I can. Sometimes I wonder if Pat will come after me, then I remember that, more than likely, since the girl is now locked up in Ohio, he’ll focus more on replacing her and finding another heroin plug so he can get put back on and start slinging again.

I wonder if he’s going back to live with mom.

Jonathan Ashley is the author of The Cost of Doing Business, Out of Mercy. His latest novel South of Cincinnati will be out this summer from Down & Out Books. Follow him on Twitter at  @JonAshley_Books

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