Hearing the unmistakable thunk of iron dumbbell crunching skull, I snatched the barbell my workout partner was repping off his chest, slammed it into the weight bench rack and glanced toward the sound. Bobby B was lying on off-white concrete, red flowing from the back of his head, staining the East Block Death Row exercise yard.
Whistles from the gunpost pierced the air, all condemned prisoners sat down on the ground and guards came running to the gate.
The sergeant ordered several condemned men to place Bobby B next to the gate for pickup but no one moved. Since the guards will not walk onto a yard full of dead men awaiting execution, it looked like Bobby B might be through, but he moaned as he began to regain consciousness, rolled from his back onto his stomach and slowly crawl toward the gate leaving behind crimson swath.
Chino, the East Los Angeles gangbanger who had caved Bobby B’s cranium, twitched his feet, perhaps preparing to rush and finish Bobby B, but the gunpost officer rotated his rifle towards Chino, and ordered sharply, “DON’T!”
Staring at the deadly end of a rifle ready to spat .223 rounds, Chino settled right back down on his butt and the rifle rotated up and away from his body.
Bobby B was off to the hospital for a few days, but he came back, and he was angry. Already a miserable, hate-filled cretin, Bobby B morphed into a screaming ogre. Since he was now too scared to venture outside to the exercise yard, all night long he‘d standby his cell bars hollering racial slurs equally damning all races. Since I lived in the next cell, I was pretty much operating on zero sleep.
One insane evening when Bobby B had been screaming the N-word for quite awhile, a black guard cuffed him up, promising to take him to the shower, followed him inside and laid some flashlight therapy across the scars on the back of his skull. Leaving Bobby B knocked out and locked inside the shower, the guard walked back down the tier and turned himself into the sergeant carrying in his hand a misshapen broken flashlight. Never saw that guard again on Death Row, but I don’t think he was fired, believe he was just moved onto another assignment. Tell you the truth he was my hero, Bobby B was gone to the hospital for some more days and the silence was bliss.
When Bobby B came back from hospital, he was a bit more wary now that he knew the cell door wouldn’t totally protect him and toned down his act a bit.
An earthquake hit, and Bobby B freaked out, screaming, asking in a panicked voice what he should do as the building rocked for about ten seconds.
I had grown up on a fault line, so I was casual. “Just stay calm,” I advised Bobby B from the next cell, “it’s going to be okay.”
Either that, I reflected, or the one hundred year old prison will collapse around us and we’ll be dead. Death penalty appeals finis.
The building held up and after that Bobby B and I talked briefly each morning before I went to yard to workout. I encouraged the communication, hoping it would influence him to exercise his fifth amendment right to remain silent through the wee hours of the night.
Over time, Bobby B told me in a soft, subdued tone how he was raised by his father’s mother who was Jewish and she enrolled him in Yeshiva, but since his mother was Baptist he wasn’t considered part of the chosen people and had been ostracized by the Rabbi and all his classmates. Even the San Quentin Rabbi had accused him of trying to infiltrate and subvert the Jewish community when he learned of his background.
A few months later, I received some music in the mail, but my boom box was broken, and I couldn’t listen to it until a new one arrived through special purchase. Much to my surprise, Bobby B sent over his boom box and I cranked up the volume to full and zoned out. A few hours later, I pulled off my headphones and realized Bobby B was yelling threats. Apparently, he had been asking for the return of his boom box for awhile and I hadn’t heard him.
“Here,” I called out immediately, stuck the box out my tray slot, and handed it over to Bobby B.
Minutes later I heard the sound of hard plastic hitting the wall and floor, and called over,
“What’s going on?”
“I broke my boom box so you couldn’t borrow it again,” Bobby B screamed.
“I had the volume up high, so I didn’t know you wanted it back,” I explained. “My bad. But I returned it as soon as I heard you. Now can you explain one thing to me, Bobby B?”
“Since you had the box back in your cell, why did you break it?”
“Told you,” Bobby B’s voice cracked with semi-hysteria, “didn’t want you to have it again!”
“But you could have just kept it in your cell, Bobby B, you didn’t have to loan it to me again.”
Silence reigned for a couple beats before Bobby B asked, “Mike, why did I break my boom box?”
“I have no idea, Bobby B.”
My California Supreme Court decision was about due, so I wasn’t surprised when a few weeks later I was called out for an unscheduled legal visit. One look at my lawyer’s face and I knew it wasn’t good news. I had been affirmed for death.
“What was the vote?” I asked.
“Seven to zero,” she said and shook her head.
“At least I got a perfect score,” I answered wryly, and she laughed.
My lawyer explained I would receive an execution date in about five or six weeks, and then I’d be moved to a death watch cell. However within thirty days of my placement in the death watch cell I’d receive a stay from the federal court, so my execution would still be years away.
Nodding, I got up to leave, and she told me to make sure I phoned her when I was placed in the death watch cell, and I nodded again.
When I got back to my cell I found out that Bobby B had heard on the local TV news about my Supreme Court decision.
“Seven to zero!” he taunted me in his manic way. “Mike’s gonna die.”
Suddenly the thought of moving away from him into a death watch cell seemed pleasant. When I received my stay of execution, this cell would be occupied by then, so I’d no longer be housed next to the lunatic.
“Empirical data leads us to believe that everyone dies sometime, Bobby B,” I said lazily. “What was your vote?”
“Five to two for death,” he said defensively.
“I’d hoped to get two votes,” I said easily. “If you get one vote, you get an extra bag lunch. But two votes is way better, they give you strawberry ice cream.”
It was quiet for a while next door before Bobby B finally called back, “Mike, I didn’t get my strawberry ice cream. Who do I get at to get it?”
To find more of Michael’s writing, please visit Life After Death Row.