From God, with a little help

I HAD just come to the defense of one of my fellow prisoners, and a prison guard, a man covered with blue cloth and brass, said the following to me:

"What are you doing, Johnson? You're not one of these people. There's something about you that stands out, something about you that's different. If you play your cards right, you could get out of here. Go home, sit on your porch, drink a cold beer."


I looked at him and waited.

"I mean," he continued, his eyes darting, "you keep stickin' your neck out for nothing."


He looked up at the bright morning sun, glanced around the prison yard, pointed at two men going at it in a playful pebble fight. The larger man was chasing the smaller man with a fist full of pebbles.

"Now you see that? People like that don't give a damn what you do for them. So why keep speakin' up? I could see it if you was doin' it for yourself, but you're not. You ain't got no cause to. Everybody treats you with respect around here." (He didn't know some of my writing tools had been confiscated, that I had been rousted from my cot and strip-searched at 4 in the morning, that I felt tired from all of it.)

He went on: "I ain't never seen a prisoner get so much consideration. Nobody utters your name with a pout on his lips."

I studied the guard for a moment, considering what he'd said. Finally, I asked, "Have you ever seen a sea turtle? Millions of them beneath the moon by the sea? Do you know where they come from, those sea turtles?"

"Yeah, I know where they come from."


"From God!" he screamed, as if with a thirst to be whipped into a furious rage.

"No, they don't," I said quietly. "They come from turtles, from an agreement the sun, moon and sea have with the sand. If any of them broke that agreement, that would be the end of the poor sea turtle."


"What does that have to do with the poor fools in here?" he asked.

"They're here by agreement, too," I said, "and some of us have broken it."

"But the Bible says the wicked will surely die."

A fight broke out, and he rushed off to break it up, to save someone from being beaten, possibly from dying.

A pigeon landed at my feet. It looked up with little blinking eyes. Hungry eyes. Did I see desperation in this scavenger's eyes?

"You, too?" I said. "Well, at least you've got wings. Go use them."


I walked up the hill to the food building, hoping to steal a cup of tea. I was thinking that God does come to the aid of the feeble as he sees fit, but he always seems delighted to get a little help from nature and man just the same.

H.B. Johnson Jr., a poet and playwright who is dying of AIDS, was to be released from the Maryland State Penitentiary today. His sentence for robbery and attempted murder was commuted last week by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.