June/July 1998

t h e   s a l o n

The Salon

essayist Valentine Michael Smith


Jimmy was an ugly cuss, short, pug-nosed, a shock of short brown hair in a permanent state of dishevellment, with flattened ears from repeatedly being punched. He had a flash-point temper, brooding brown eyes, maybe he stood five feet tall. He fought constantly, demonically, with no fear of pain. The 11th child in his family, not really wanted, a little demented, the family had him put away as incorrigible at 11 years old. When I met him, he had been put away four years, and had seen a vistor once in all that time.

Jimmy had a big hate on for most folks, but he loved to play cards, and was his friendliest when he played. Then would be the times he'd talk about escaping from the place, and heading to a better life where somebody loved him. We'd all say, "Yeah, yeah," and know he'd never go, though he was pretty bold in all other ways. Jimmy was a a diabetic, and gave himself shots twice a day. His arms and thighs looked like he'd been a junkie twenty years. 12 hours from his medicine, Jim was a dead man, which he and we both knew. Our keepers told us he went into diabetic comas pretty easily, because he hated the shots, and wouldn't always take them.

We didn't believe the attendents until one day, when Jimmy was 15 or so, a few months after I came, he lost his temper. Jimmy threw a chair through a window, then slashed his arm from wrist to elbow to show how tough he was. However, as he was dramatically showing off his bleeding arm, he went into a diabetic attack, then passed out, and his unconciousness wasn't from loss of blood. So, we watched out for him after that incident, and our keepers kept orange juice in the ward icebox for when he had an attack. On the rare occasions we went somewhere, we always took OJ, because Jimmy had gone into a seizure once at a Red Wings hockey game, scaring the hell out of us.

In 1963, Jimmy hadn't seen a family member for over a year. He was the only guy on the ward who never got visitors, never got mail from home, never got money to go the commissary for smokes or candy - he was always bumming cigarettes - and he began to grow morose and dspondent. Jimmy began talking escape all the time. So did we, but tried to exclude him from our plans. None of us wanted to take him on escape for fear he go into a coma on us.

A big mass jump got into the planning stage, and Jimmy wanted to go along. We wouldn't let him in on any of the discussions about going. The day before 12 of us were going to bolt, Jim came up missing at nightime bedcheck. We put the plot off, most of us laying in bed, wondering where the little guy had gotten to and was he alright. The next day, the hospital got a guy to come out with four or five hounds, and he went off to the west where we had planned to go, tracking Jimmy.

We never saw the tracker again, but that night, big hushed conferences at the nursing station told us they had probably found Jimmy. Sure enough, they had. He was found dead in the brush about three miles away. He hadn't yet reached the age of 16. All he desired from life was to be free and wanted by somebody, for a little while. He got a county pine box instead. We never saw him again, and for most of us, he probably is now forgotten, that having happened almost thirty years ago. But memory is a funny thing. I can still see that crooked grin, those big brown eyes slightly squinting, that "tough guy look" he always had, playing cards and grousing, and I haven't forgotten him at all.

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