By Grid Margraf
(Editor’s note: This is the third and final installment of “Charlie’s Story,” which details Margraf’s interaction with Charlie, a Vietnam veteran who shot up a sheriff’s office as a result of an episode of post-traumatic stress disorder. For Parts I and II of this story, visit www.fresnoalliance.org).
“The paper made you sound 10-foot tall and bulletproof, not an escapee from Snow White’s clan.”
I said, “Which one were you, Poofy?”
“For your information, I was Shorty,” Charlie said.
“Of course you were. Well Shorty, draw a card.”
Charlie drew a card. As he studied his hand, I heard a key turn in the crash gate to the cell block and the sound of metal hinges as the door opened. Charlie discarded the queen of clubs. Deputy Brown said, “I think the cell on the end is open.”
The crash gate closed with a bang. A middle-aged overweight White guy walked past the cell. Charlie and I looked at each other and shrugged.
I drew a card, my foot keeping a silent beat on the floor. My hand was filling in nicely. I only needed one more card and this hand would be mine.
A couple of minutes later the new guy pressed his face against the bars, “Does anyone have a towel I can borrow?” The guy looked and smelled like he could use one.
Charlie reached under his bed for his extra towel as I discarded the jack of hearts.
I saw Jeff from the second cell start his evening walk. Every night before lockup he would walk for 20 minutes. Fifty feet per lap, 105 and a half laps to the mile.
The new guy thanked Charlie and left.
Charlie drew from the deck and studied his cards. “So what did the lawyer tell you today?” I asked.
“He’s going to ask for a 90-day psych eval at Vacaville.”
“What’s to evaluate? You’re crazier than a peach orchard boar.”
“No one knows what a peach orchard boar is, so they have to do it their way.”
I flipped the score sheet over and drew some squiggly lines and turned it to show Charlie. “What do you see?”
“The top of your sister’s head.”
“Really? I thought it was a dead ringer for your first wife.”
“Nope, the teeth are too straight.”
I flipped the score sheet back over. Charlie discarded the four of spades, which was the card I’d been waiting for.
I was reaching for it when Jeff said through the bars, “That new guy is hanging himself.” Then continued walking.
I stopped tapping my foot, looked from my Rummy card to Charlie, “Crap.” I put my cards on the bed—face down of course—and asked, “yes or no?”
“If the mother****** was serious he would have waited 30 minutes and could have hung there all f***ing night, inconsiderate prick. Come on.”
I was the first out of Charlie’s cell and the first into the new guy’s. Sure enough, he had tied strips of the towel together. One end was around the air vent in the corner of the cell, the other end tied around his neck. He had apparently stepped off the toilet.
I straddled the toilet, grabbed the guy around the thighs and lifted. Charlie vaulted onto the sink.
I smelled rancid urine as I tried to give Charlie slack to untie the knot. It was too tight. The guy weighed about 220 pounds but felt much heavier.
Charlie jumped down. “I’m going to grab my razor. Hold him up.”
“As opposed to what, climbing him like a gym rope?” I yelled as Charlie disappeared out the door.
I heard Charlie tell Jeff to rattle the crash gate, our way to get the cop’s attention.
The crash gate began making all kinds of racket. Charlie ran back with his razor blade. “You ready kid?”
“Go,” I said.
Charlie started cutting.
When the towel parted I took the guy’s full weight and aimed him at the bed with a slow-motion shoulder throw. The guy landed on his back on the bed. I went to work on the knot around his throat. It wouldn’t budge. I worked two fingers under the strip of towel and told Charlie, “Cut it.” He gave it a couple of quick sawing motions before it gave way.
Ninth-grade health class required that everyone learn CPR. I excelled as there was no sitting. I measured three fingers up from the xiphoid process and delivered a solid precordial thump to his chest. It sounded like I punched a watermelon.
The hair, the beard, the teeth, reminded me of a bum. I shivered inside. There was no way I was going to seal my lips against this dude with bad teeth and a beard. I placed the heel of my hands just under his rib cage and slowly pushed in and up toward his diaphragm. The air fell out of his lungs. As soon as I released the pressure he inhaled.
The crash gate ceased rattling. I could hear Jeff talking.
Officer Brown yelled, “Everyone in their cells, now! Lock it up!”
Charlie and I were still in the last cell watching the guy come to. We walked out of the last cell toward our own. “Hey Bro,” I said, “I don’t think that I could have given that guy mouth to mouth.”
“Let it go kid.”
“How about it Charlie, could you have puckered up and locked lips with that dude?”
“The verdict as to my queerness is not in yet, but you will notice that I was not the first in line to pucker up for a dead man.”
The cops went back out, brought a gurney in, and hauled the new guy out of the block. It was about lockup time, so the day was over.
When the cops got back, they wanted to know, “How did it happen?” When we tried to answer, all they wanted to know was how he ended up on the bed. They had a report to write, and they wanted to make sure we hadn’t done anything to the new guy. We were never afforded any credit for saving his life.
Grid Margraf is a writer currently incarcerated at the Correctional Training Facility at Soledad. Contact him at Grid Margraf D-13272, P.O. Box 689 B-322, Soledad, CA 93960-0689.