A Story by Steven King Ainsworth
CLANK! CLANK! CLANK! The sound of the turnkey unlocking the cell doors echoed through the cellblock. Clank! Clank! Clank! he moved at a steady pace down the tier marking the rhythm of the cellblock s 6:00 a.m. awakening.
Throwing my bed covers back, I rolled out of the my hard prison bed, the cold cement floor making me walk on the sides of my feet as I hurriedly staggered to the sink. Quickly hitting the cold water button I splashed my face, washing the sleep from my eyes. Groping around for a towel, I found it and wiped my face dry.
Jamming a rolled up National Geographic magazine between the sink's edge and the hot water button I let the water run, hoping it would be especially hot this morning.
Collecting my clothes I quickly dressed, stripped my bed, and folded up the thin mattress. Then I filled my plastic tumbler with hot water and spooned in my last bit of instant coffee.
Sipping the rich mixture I sat down on the steel bed and listed to the clank! clank! of the turnkey unlocking the cells, the hot water running in the sink, and the myriad sounds of convicts waking up with the disappointment that their dreams lied to them and they were still in the cell that they had fallen asleep in the night before.
Clank! Clank! Clank! The sound was getting closer. The turnkey stopped at my door.
"Today?" he asked.
"Yeah, man today," I answered.
"Good luck," he said, moving on with his keys and clanking sound.
"Thanks," I replied, moving over to the sink and turning off the hot water. Taking my pass to freedom off the shelf above the sink I read it for the umpteenth time.
"R & R 8:30 a.m." I was being released today after five long years.
"6:00 a.m. unlock," the public address system blared. The security bar slid back to free the cell doors and I pushed mine open and kicked my bedding out on the tier. I stepped out of my cell with my shoe box of personal belongings, not much for five years, even though I started with less.
Moving off towards the main cell block doors I looked about for a sign that this indeed would be my last exist, but all I saw was the angry scowls of the men about me, a reminder of the years I had wasted in this pit.
Stepping out of the cellblock into the dewy air, a light fog obscured some of the details, but you knew that the armed guards were alert on the gunrails overhead, the snouts of their weapons pointing down with deadly menace.
We marched with shuffling feet towards the big dining hall with its murals depicting progress and discovery. The chow line formed along the wall, each convict's back tight against it as he slid along towards the steam table and its bounty of felon fodder.
Rubbery green scrambled, powdered eggs, sided with hard nuggets of reconstituted dehydrated potatoes, a generous portion of stewed prunes to ease the passage, topped off with a carton of milk that tasted like fermented silage and a cup of ersatz coffee rounded out the morning repast.
Glumly, I held out my tray as the served flopped my issue of each on it. Moving along I found an empty slot at one of the tables and sat down with three others. Warily looking at one another and none of us saying anything, we quickly gulped the mess before us, each hoping that we would finish before a fight or riot broke out. Visions of hard-edged trays flying around, utensils thrown, and bullets ricocheting endlessly around the cement walls as the gun guards fired mercilessly with glee to end the melee hurried each spoonful to our mouths.
Finishing, we each rose and left the mess hall, me with my little show box under my arm. I wandered down under the big megal shed that covered the upper yard area where the white boys had staked out their territory.
No matter where you went in prison each ethnic group had their particular spot to stand. Seldom did the groups integrate, until the crowd of convicts got so large that the different groups were forced into proximity with each other. Even then there remained a distinct body-wide line of demarcation around each group.
Some convicts I knew from each group exchanged veiled signs of recognition. I cupped my pass in my hand and waved at each, making little walking-man signs with my fingers. Some caught it and gave me the A-okay of circled fingers and thumb. Others just looked and gave one finger, the middle one straight up.
I looked up, the shed roof peppered with bullet holds and the girders lined up with the ever-present pigeons. Moving over from beneath the shed I looked up the small windows on top of the north cellblock where death row was. Some of those boys up there would never get a pass like the one I clutched in my hand. I shivered as if a ghost had stepped beside me. I looked away from the little windows.
As the crowd of convicts grew under the shed you could see the facades alight as each convict adopted a look to discourage any confrontation. The hubbub of the crowd droned on as I stood among my cohorts.
I shook hands and said goodbye to the boys I thought I knew best. Most wished me luck and some punched me on the shoulder in the age-old checkout. I did not want to say I would never be back, that would jinx me for sure. I was looking for a sign, any kind of sign that would tell me all would go well and I would make it on the outside this time.
"Industries work call!" the public address system blared. Convicts moved off to work down the hill as i stood watching them go.
"Maintenance work call!" and convicts with little bundles of clothes moved out across the upper yard toward the laundry down the hill.
"Outside work crews!" That was the last part of the morning work calls, as a handful of convicts moved off toward the sally port gate to work on the other side of the prison walls.
The crowd beneath the shed had thinned out considerably by now. I would have to wait for the loud speakers to announce pass call before I could move. I stood there contemplating this place of despair and human misery. It was an old prison, more than a hundred and fifty years old. The state would never close it as the real estate it sat on was priceless.
Another convict stood nearby with his own little shoebox and clutching his ticket to freedom also. We stood looking at each other, our facades cracked, and we smiled at one another.
I moved over to stand beside him. Listening, we both could hear the cooing of the pigeons in the steel girders overhead.
I started to speak to the convict to tell him about the sign. Just as I opened my mouth, he pointed upwards.
I looked up just in time to see a big grey and white pigeon ease his bottom clear of the girder. I stood dumbstruck as the pigeon shook his bottom above me and loosed a glutinous mass of stinking pale guano. It dropped with lightning speed. I could not move. My feet were glued to the pavement.
Smack! The mass of pale guano splattered against my forehead and down across my shoulders.
The other convict guffawed and slapped his knee. Stepping back out of the way he slowly shook his head from side to side.
It was then I knew. I finally had my sign.
Steven King Ainsworth
- Steven King Ainsworth is a death row prisoner at San Quentin California. While in prison, he has turned to both art and writing. He states, "Art and expression have become my passions. As I do not expect to leave prison alive, art has become my life -- and my escape."
On August 23, 1996, Judge Karlton of the Eastern District of California granted Steven Ainsworth's petition for writ of habeas corpus. The court ruled that the habeas revision in the anti-terrorism bill did not apply to the petition, which was pending at the time the legislation was enacted. Karlton then found that the trial counsel failed to provide constitutional standards of representation in the investigation and defense of the special circumstance allegation, which made Ainsworth eligible for the death penalty. The court ordered Ainsworth to be resentenced without a special circumstance finding or retried within 60 days
Pale Guano is taken from Writings From Death Row, a collection of stories, poems, and drawings published by the Sacramento Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Proceeds from the book are divided equally between the Coalition and Wellspring Women's Center of Oak Park, which serves a large population including many women of Indochinese origins and culture.
The book can be purchased for donations of $6.00 or more. For more information, contactGeorgianna Lyga
c/o Solidarity House
651 55th Street
Sacramento, CA 95819-3304