By Tracy Meadows
I never knew what disease stiffened and wasted Reynoso's body. It wasn't any of my business. My job as his irunate companion was to get him outside.
Reynoso's head was shaved and covered with tattoos. His inked body was a record of his life, his associations, his beliefs about the world and his place in it. His face, bisected by the oxygen tube pushed into his nostrils and wrapped around his ears, was a frozen mask dominated by his black eyes. His turtle shell goverrunent issue glasses magnified those eyes into a gaze you could not escape. His skin was stretched thin, his toes and fingers too long, his head too big. He had just a little control of his arms and head. His hands were frozen into fists.
He wore shorts cut from sweatpants, sewn with precise dental floss stitches by an inmate whose hustle was sewing. He was past wearing the prison khakis. When in his wheelchair he wore his fourth -hand tennis shoes untied.
I couldn' t tell you exactly how long Reynoso had been down, but it had been a minute. lie was from California and he' d seen the inside of a lot of jails.
"We expect to be locked up at some point in this country. It's just a vacation to us, cause we're used to that shit ".
I was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners at Springfield , Missouri in
2010 and did two years there before I was again transferred. The hospital unit at Springfield was on the third floor of building two, so everyone called it "three-two". Built in the nineteen thirties it was steam powered, partially air conditioned and relentlessly dingy. Pipes, screws, nuts and bolts were left exposed except where there was lawsuit potential. Everything was painted in the institutional rainbow of gray, beige, white and black.
Reynoso was "stuck in this god-damn bed" unless he was lifted into his wheel chair or he could badger someone into laying him on the floor.
"Fuck it," he would say as he tried to get his immobile face to smile, "I like it down there, it's cooler and it feels good. "
The first time I found him on the fl oor I probably sounded like a khaki cop .
"The nurses will be pissed if they see you down there."
"Fuck it," he said, his eyes narrowing. "What they gonna do, put me in j ail?". I left him on the floo r.
Reynoso was always ready to go outside. "When you coming back so I can go to the yard?"
I had to dress him before we could go, and I was awkward at first. While he was quick to buck against any staff member, "Fuck it, they' re all cops, even the nurses", he was easy going with other inmates. "Fuck it , just do it, you aren't gonna break me." So I got used to pull ing his shorts over one toothpick leg at a time, and lifting him as I pulled them up to his waist. I' d li ft his head and shoulders to put his t-shirt on and pull his spindly arms through the sleeves. I would roll his socks over his toes, rigid feet and ankles, like I was dressing a life size action figure.
Reynoso sat on a fo lded blanket in his wheel chair
"'ca~se fuck it , I don't have enough meat on my ass." He wasn' t heavy. I would lift him into his chair and we would wheel down the hall from the four man room where he stayed to the elevator and wait for the move.
Inmates could only move within the prison during controlled movements. Like when you were in school. The bell rang, and you changed classes. In prison the announcement came over the intercom "ten minute move" and you had that long to get where you were going.
The elevators had aluminum interiors lighted from behind security covers. The emergency door in the ceiling was pad-locked . They moved creaking, lurching, and sounding unsure. From the elevator we followed the hallway to the doors of the recreation yard .
The yard was unusual for a federal prison. It had trees, a small flower garden, picnic tables, benches, and a short track surrounding a ball field.
The yard at Springfield was refreshing because at the prison I had come from, there was only grass and dust. The yard at Springfield was like a neighborhood park except for the twenty foot walls and razor wire.
~, inmates with a small nod of his head or a struggling lift of his arm. If he saw some of his homeboys, I 'd leave him with them and go for a walk around the track by myself. Reynoso liked to sit in his chair with his feet on the ground instead of the foot rests. With the wheels unlocked he could use his arms and balled up fists to move the chair back and forth a few inches, stretching out his legs. "Fuck it, feels good to stretch ".
The longer Reynoso was off his oxygen, the weaker he got. He would have to stop between words to catch his failing breath. When I asked him why he couldn't take his oxygen machine with him , he said "They told me it was not a portable unit and I can't have a portable one". Once again, his eyes narrowed . "Fuck it , they just trying to keep me from going out, but I ' 11 god-damn go anyway". He could only manage an hour away from the oxygen.
I was sitting on my cot in my housing unit one day when the C. O . on duty walked by. "The nurses station on three-two called and they want to know if you can come up". Reynoso wanted to go outside and had been hitting the call button with his fist over and over asking when I would be up to take him to the yard. When I stepped off the elevator, there he was in his wheelchair. He' d gotten one of the nurses attendants to dress and lift him into his chair. He'd wheeled himself from his room to the elevator. It must have taken half an hour to move those thirty feet, pushing the wheels a little at a time with those arms and fists. Reynoso wanted to go outside.
He didn 't always get to go. The head nurse came into the room one day as I finished dressing him.
"Reynoso", she scolded, "you can't go out, you haven't eaten". Since I had fed him several times I said , "I'll feed him , if that 's ok ". "You haven't eaten", she said again, ignoring me.
"Remember what I said , if you don't eat, then you don't get up or go outside".
The lack of air made his voice a whisper, so Reynoso yelled with his eyes. "Fuck it , I don't want any of your fucking food". He took a drag on the oxygen tubes in his nostrils. "Fuck it, I ' ll eat when I'm hungry, and there's nothing you can god-damn do about it ~ He stored his dignity in his defiance. It was the only place he had left.
-r-: ~J~ ~
We would make a couple of laps around the track, Reynoso accepting the greetings of other
In the few months I was Reynoso 's companion, we went to the yard, watched movies in the gym, and once went to Catholic Mass in the Chapel. I fed him , dressed him , but could never really get to know him. I wasn't a homeboy, and I had other assignments as a companion. Often I was just a part of his schedule of meds, meals, and bath.
I went to three-two on a Tuesday to see him. His bed was empty and stripped. I went to the nurses station and was told that Reynoso had been taken to the outside hospital. The next day I went to see my supervisor. She would only say, "it doesn't look good".
After two weeks I heard through the "inmate dot Com" grapevine that Reynoso was back on the compound. He was on three-two in a single man room. That was on Friday. On Sunday I went up to see him. Sunday was one of the days we went outside. I didn 't see his name on any of the rooms, and when I asked where he was the officer casually replied.
"Reynoso's dead. "
The institution had a regularly scheduled memorial service once a month to give inmates a chance to remember those who had recently died. I had been informed that I was to be transferred to a different prison while Reynoso was in the hospital. When the time came for his memorial service, I wasn't there.
I 've met a lot of people since I 've been locked up. As an inmate companion I sat with men who were dying. The living tend to enter into the present moment and exit as the moment passes.
The dead often take up residence in the memory.
I won't forget Reynoso. Caught up for a hot minute in a "correctional" system where sentences are so long and hopelessness so prevalent that the word "minute" has become a grim parody, he lived in spite of it all. In a system that callously issues empty policies of
"compassionate release", with his body and person broken and the street, society, the government, the world, even life itself seeming to want him dead, Reynoso said "Fuck it," and lived anyway.
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