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    Reflections of a Charlie


    There is heart ache and a thousand natural shocks to a prisoner’s body upon waking up to another foreboding morning.  Charlie had to recondition himself to rise before the ringing of the count bell.  The bell rings every morning at approximately at 7 AM and Charlie has acquired a pathological hatred of bells because of their Pavlovian affect upon him.  To prevent himself from salivating at the sound of the bell, he gets up an hour before count.

                This morning he is five minutes late.  His watch reads 6:05 AM.  Talking to himself, he mutters, “Damn, it’s cold.”  In his mind there is no cold like penitentiary cold.  Because the climate in prison is controlled by policy, the heat gets turned on October 15, and turned off April 15.  Policy is controlled by the temperament of the guards.  With a flick of an ill-tempered finger, the bricks turn into glaciers; the bars become stalactites.  The cold creeps into one’s bones like an iceberg, inch upon inch.  Caught between the sub-zero mentality of authority, he realizes  the Fahrenheit of his reality is no better than during the summer when a prisoner’s sweat is akin to a malaria driven by a single ravenous mosquito and accompanied by the accumulation of the sun’s rays being soaked up by the blood thirsty bars and soul stunting bricks.

                Ripping the condom thin blanket from the morgue-like bed, he sings both feet out of bed.  Landing them on the cold concrete floor, a memory shot like a bat out of hell through the subterranean layers of his childhood.

                As long as Charlie could remember, he hated concrete floors.  They reminded him of traveling in a raggedy ass station wagon from state to state, in search of work.  Charlie and his family belonged to a caravan of migrant workers who always drove in goose formation. There was one constant thing he could count on.  When the caravan arrived in each migrant camp that thing was a broken- down shack with a concrete floor.  Concrete floors represented the misery in his life. They were the genesis of his suffering.  He was conceived and born on a concrete floor. 

                Since Charlie was too small to work in the fields, it was his chore to clean every shack in each camp his family stayed in.  Every car in the Tegucigalpa caravan carried a witches’ broom.  If he could have flown away on that broom, he would been gone long ago.

                He dreaded sweeping up rat shit, and the dust of other peoples’ long forgotten memories.  Along with the cobwebs of wasted lives hiding out in the corners of shacks, Charlie realized the particles of past sufferings found a way into his gut bringing on bouts of depression.

                After the sweeping came the mopping.  To clear away the smell of mildewed hatred, and the rage of not having lived better lives, mopping a concrete floor was like purgatory in motion.   It gave him a Sisyphean kind of feeling, like he’d been mopping without ever getting the dammed floors cleaned.

                There was no running water in any of the shacks, so he had to fetch water from the camp’s well.  He would trudge to the well, drop the rope attached bucket into the well water.  He’d then pull with all his little might, to bring the water up.  Then he would fill the two buckets.  Taking a fallen tree branch, he would run it through the bucket handles, hoisting the buckets upon his shoulders. He then staggered back to the shack. Charlie always avoided looking into the well.  The serenity that lay at the bottom of the obsidian colored water seemed to beckon his tired little body.

    The last affront to his day was doing his final chore.  He had to gather sawdust and dirt to throw down the two holes where people had to sit.  The outhouses were worse than the shacks.  They always stank.  They were made of rotted plywood, old dirty newspapers with a smelly wool blanket that covered the entrance.  While you were doing your business, anyone could walk in and plop right down next to you.

                In Charlie’s mind, outhouses symbolized what humanity was truly about.  The outhouse was about the sound and smells of people.  The outhouse was about gut-wrenching defeat.  It was about the smell of blood, sweat, and tears mingled with moonshine.  It was about the thud of dreams deferred

    The guard at his gate for morning count broke his remembrance.  Just being counted sent disrupted thoughts of anger to his brain.  The action of just standing and observing the guard making a notation on a clipboard conjured up the question of whether he was an animal or a human.  His saving grace was the brain in his gut, reminding him there was still a resemblance of humanity residing within him.

    Right after the morning count, Charlie would look into his mirror to prepare himself for the day to come. He hated prisoner mirror’s because they are ultimately fun-house-mirrors.  His first theory was prison mirrors were like Narcissus’ pool.  If one gazed long enough into it, you would start to believe you were rehabilitated instead of institutionalized.  Charlie understood the whole criminal justice system was a prison mirror.  His second theory was prison mirrors were just reflective surfaces in which to gaze back at his epidermis.  The third theory was prison mirrors were teleportation devices, with the capacity of transporting one into the inner depths of one’s being.  His experiences led him to conclude mirrors can be any surface or surrounding that reflects who one is supposed to be.

    Rigor mortis had set his body in place, making him stiff and inflexible.  Just like the slab of bed he had slept in.  His mind contained the waste products that swirled around in his toilet before he flushed them.  His personality was devoid of life, just like the necrotized walls surrounding him.  His spirit was as grey, dirty, and lifeless as the concrete floor in his cell.

    At the present moment, the mirror was showing the concrete floors of his childhood.  It suddenly dawned on Charlie; he’d been standing in the same place for forty years.  The concrete floor of his childhood, and the one he was standing on now were one and the same, just like the concrete with the rat shit and dirt he could never keep clean.




    Charlie had been a dope fiend for the last twenty-five years.  Despite rehab he could not stay clean. He tried salvation to sweep the cobwebs and dirt from his filthy life without success. The shacks and cells were his crosses to bare.  They have always been reflective and continued his pain and suffering.

    Charlie no longer had to clean other people’s outhouses. He had a toilet in his cell, a few feet from where he slept.  His cell was one in a row of thirty-nine other cells.  He could smell and hear the sounds of other people’s gut-wrenching defeat.  He had experienced and seen the day to day humiliation of being a prisoner.  He could smell the blood and sweat, along with the thud of dreams deferred, right before they were flushed down the toilet.

    Charlie broke off his remembrance from the mirror because he had to get dressed. He was scheduled to be transferred to another prison.

    It was almost like the caravan except there was no family or raggedy ass station wagon.  There was just being shackled to another human being on the prison bus.  The reality was he was on his way to another shack.  How he wished he had that old witch’s broom now. He could have just flown away.


    About The Author

    Michael Rhynes

    Michael Rhynes has been in prison for the last 35 years.  From the inhuman depth of the New York State prison system, he has explored and advanced his humanity through the eye of the needle that is art. Prison art is different from worldly art, simply because it’s learned under the strangulation of prison regulations that obscure the space between being human and that of being a beast. Prison art has been the boon of Michael’s existence.  Without prison art, he would have choked to death long ago.  Despite the enormous bastion of repression, Mr. Rhynes has lived under his creative light that continues to shine forth. Over his decades in prison, Michael has had a poetry chapbook published entitled, “Guerrillas In the Mist.”  He has been nominated for a “Pushcart” prize by aaduna.  In 2009, he co-created and co-founded The Phoenix Players Theater Group (PPTG) at the Auburn Correctional Facility (see phoenixplayersatauburn.com) in Auburn, NY  which is still going strong today.  He participated in four performances produced by PPTG.  He appears in the documentary “Human Again,” which won several awards from film festivals.  For almost 10 years he helped facilitate Monday night poetry classes at ACF and created a poetry class at the Attica State prison also in New York. At Attica, he created and co-founded “Third Prison From the Sun Theater Group.”  Michael has also performed in the chorus with the world famous Glimmerglass Festival in its production of “West Side Story” at Attica. Michael’s poems, short stories, and articles have been published by Flying Horse, Climbing the Walls, The Advocate, aaduna, The Buffalo Challenger, Justica, Olive Trees, Spark, Inside/Outside, Scope, Writers Block and phoenixplayers at auburn.com. Michael obtained his associates degree in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences from the prestigious Cornell University Prison Education Program (CPEP). His non-fiction piece is also featured in this issue.