Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist/Part II/Chapter 4

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Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist by Alexander Berkman
Part II, Chapter 4
First published in 1912

Chapter 4: A Ray of Light[edit]

I YEARN FOR companionship. Even the mere sight of a human form is a relief. Every morning, after breakfast, I eagerly listen for the familiar swish-swash on the flagstones of the hallway: it is the old rangeman "sweeping up." The sensitive mouth puckered up in an inaudible whistle, the onearmed prisoner swings the broom with his left, the top of the handle pressed under the armpit.

"Hello, Aleck! How're you feeling to-day?

He stands opposite my cell, at the further end of the wall, the broom suspended in mid-stroke. I catch an occasional glance of the kind blue eyes, while his head is in constant motion, turning to right and left, alert for the approach of a guard.

"How're you, Aleck?"

"Oh, nothing extra."

"I know how it is, Aleck, I've been through the mill. Keep up your nerve, you'll be all right, old boy. You're young yet."

"Old enough to die," I say, bitterly.

" S-sh! Don't speak so loud. The screw's got long ears."

"The screw?"

A wild hope trembles in my heart. The "screw"! The puzzling expression in the mysterious note,-perhaps this man wrote it. In anxious expectancy, I watch the rangeman. His back turned toward me, head bent, he hurriedly plies the broom with the quick, short stroke of the one-armed sweeper. "S-sh! " he cautions, without turning, as he crosses the line of my cell.

I listen intently. Not a sound, save the regular swish-swash of the broom. But the more practiced ear of the old prisoner did not err. A long shadow falls across the hall. The tall guard of the malicious eyes stands at my door.

"What you pryin' out for?" he demands.

"I am not prying."

"Don't you contradict me. Stand back in your hole there. Don't you be leanin' on th' door, dye hear? "

Down the hall the guard shouts: "Hey you, cripple! Talkin' there, wasn't you?"

"No, sir."

"Don't you dare lie to me. You was."

"Swear to God I wasn't."

"W-a-all, if I ever catch you talkin' to that s- of a b-, I'll fix you."

The scratching of the broom has ceased. The rangeman is dusting the doors. The even strokes of the cat-o'-nine-tails sound nearer. Again the man stops at my door, his head turning right and left, the while he diligently plies the duster.

"Aleck," he whispers, "be careful of that screw. He's a-. See him jump on me?"

"What would he do to you if he saw you talking to me?"

"Throw me in the hole, the dungeon, you know. I'd lose my job, too."

"Then better don't talk to me."

"Oh, I ain't scared of him. He can't catch me, not he. He didn't see me talkin'; just bluffed. Can't bluff me, though."

"But be careful."

"It's all right. He's gone out in the yard now. He has no biz in the block,' anyhow, 'cept at feedin' time. He's jest lookin' for trouble. Mean skunk he is, that Cornbread Tom."

"Who?"

"That screw Fellings. We call him Cornbread Tom, b'cause he swipes our corn dodger."

"What's corn dodger?"

"Ha, ha! Toosdays and Satoordays we gets a chunk of cornbread for breakfast. It ain't much, but better'n stale punk. Know what punk is? Not long on lingo, are you? Punk's bread, and then some kids is punk."

He chuckles, merrily, as at some successful bon mot. Suddenly he pricks up his ears, and with a quick gesture of warning, tiptoes away from the cell. In a few minutes he returns, whispering:

"All O.K. Road's clear. Tom's been called to the shop. Won't be back till dinner, thank th' Lord. Only the Cap is in the block, old man Mitchell, in charge of this wing. North Block it's called."

"The women are in the South Block?"

"Nope. Th' girls got a speshal building. South Block's th' new cell-house, just finished. Crowded already, an' fresh fish comin' every day. Court's busy in Pittsburgh all right. Know any one here?"

"No."

"Well, get acquainted, Aleck. It'll give you an interest. Guess that's what you need. I know how you feel, boy. Thought I'd die when I landed here. Awful dump. A guy advised me to take an interest an' make friends. I thought he was kiddin' me, but he was on the level, all right. Get acquainted, Aleck; you'll go bugs if you don't. Must vamoose now. See you later. My name's Wingie."

"Wingie? "

"That's what they call me here. I'm an old soldier; was at Bull Run. Run so damn fast I lost my right wing, hah, hah, hah! S'long."

Eagerly I look forward to the stolen talks with Wingie. They are the sole break in the monotony of my life. But days pass without the exchange of a word. Silently the one-armed prisoner walks by, apparently oblivious of my existence, while with beating heart I peer between the bars for a cheering sign of recognition. Only the quick wink of his eye reassures me of his interest, and gives warning of the spying guard.

By degrees the ingenuity of Wingie affords us more frequent snatches of conversation, and I gather valuable information about the prison. The inmates sympathize with me, Wingie says. They know I'm "on th' level." I'm sure to find friends, but I must be careful of the "stool pigeons," who report everything to the officers. Wingie is familiar with the history of every keeper. Most of them are "rotten," he assures me. Especially the Captain of the night watch is "fierce an' an ex-fly. "I Only three "screws" are on night duty in each block, but there are a hundred overseers to "run th' dump" during the day. Wingie promises to be my friend, and to furnish "more pointers bymby."