16 February, 2018

The Whistling Plague

Those cherubic heads drawn in the corners of old maps, representing the four winds, with their puckered lips and Louis Armstrong cheeks? The little man who moved into my wing a few weeks back makes the same face but contributes nothing aesthetically pleasing by doing so. In fact, his presence only taints the already iffy wing ambiance.

Can a person ever be said to whistle aggressively? To rephrase: can someone whistle in such a way that the sound constitutes a deliberate imposition, a taunt, a challenge — a sonic fuck you to all within earshot? This loud little prick seems to spend all day blaring a tuneless mess out of his face. And now he's not alone.

Bad behavior is contagious. Suddenly, every guy running around with a chip on his shoulder has a song in his heart that he wants to share, however inartfully.

Noise is, across personality types and constitutions, a universal irritant. The louder it is, the more stress it induces. Ask the abused detainees of Abu Ghraib prison about AC/DC, or Navy SEALS about Hell Week's cacophony, or Manuel Noriega about the heavy-metal onslaught of his compound by U.S. forces' loudspeakers in 1989 — prolonged exposure to high-volume sound will drive you out of your mind.

Because of my neurological "complications," whistling of any volume or musical competency is generally on par with the smell of baby powder or, perhaps more relatably, biting a nice, big piece of aluminum foil. I dislike most of the people in my wing anyway. They act as if the world owes them something; they disregard the most common courtesies. The eruption of largely atonal whistling by people whose presence was already powerfully unpleasant is just shit-icing on the turd cake.

Why whistle in public at all? Like humming or singing to onself, it's a form of expression that's okay when you're alone — and basically not at any other time. Consider that no sane, reasonable human would, say, walk through their workplace honking at random. How is whistling different? In whose mind is whistling as piercingly as possible acceptable? And yet I am surrounded on all sides by those oblivious to their own behavior, and those too arrogant to care who's put off by it. Either failing goes a long way toward an explanation of why they're in prison in the first place.

Patient Zero, the small-statured man who brought the Whistling Plague upon us, moved in two months after someone assaulted him. He threatened and insulted a man using "his" shower, and that man leapt out, stark naked and dripping, to beat him down. Maybe someone else will get fed up with his dissonance, but even if I were that lucky there'd still be the remaining infected. My only hope against the Whistling Plague is my over-the-ear headphones.

13 February, 2018

They Treat My Prison Cell Like It's a Model Home

I'm feeding a sheet of paper into my typewriter, first thing after my cellmate leaves for work, when the door cracks and our housing unit's Lilliputian day-shift sergeant peeks in.

"Mister Case?"

"Good morning," I say, expecting her to tell me I'm needed in the caseworker's office, at Medical, or any of the half-dozen places at Crossroads that might, on any given day of the week, surprise me with a pass. But no.

"I have a young gentleman here who just started," she explains, opening the door to another very small person, this one in civilian clothes, with a coiffure like Superboy's. "Would you mind if I showed him your cell?"

The paper wound mechanically around the platen. Oh, this again. "No, not at all."

Just like the lowest-numbered cell on the bottom walks tend to be the first searched in routine shakedowns, my cell, the first one on the upper tier, gets this type of attention often. I suspect that the bigger factors in its demo-model status are that I'm not a surly fuck all the time, and what the tiny sergeant tells her trainee as I step out for her guided tour: "It's very clean. They're usually not like this."

The two staff members point and gesture — at the arrangement of our footlockers, at my shelf of books and CDs, at Doyle's terrible fantasy art, and at other stuff I don't pay attention to because I use this time out as an excuse to head downstairs and add a couple of last-minute items to my canteen order. Before I'm done at the touch screen at the front of the wing, the sergeant singsongs, "Thank you!"

I half turn. Unable to think of anything more appropriate, I give a thumbs-up. This is not what people expect prison to be like.

30 January, 2018

Fiction Contest Frustration

I submitted my short story "Such Misery Moves through the World" to Glimmer Train's New Writers Contest last October. It was my very first time entering a writing contest. As exciting as you'd think this was, I put it out of my mind the moment the envelope went out.

A willed forgetfulness is a crucial skill for all writers who want their work to be published: we send out the submission, we log it in our records, and we move on to the next piece of writing that calls for our attention. Dwelling on the odds of a forthcoming acceptance is a sure-fire way of going insane — and not the good, clever kind of insanity, the checking-your-box-every-ten-minutes-while-pacing-a-furrow-into-your-floor kind. It isn't productive or pretty.

So I waited patiently. A few @Free_Byron_Case followers saw my #ByronSays tweet about the contest and probed for updates, otherwise I might've forgotten it altogether. My writerly anticipations lay mostly in wondering when the essay and poems already accepted elsewhere would be published. Whether this constitutes another kind of madness is debatable, but at least it's based on the written agreement to publish my work, not just wishful thinking.

Three months flew by. Then the envelope arrived. I managed my expectations by thinking, They returned the whole manuscript, but at least they'll have included criticism on the story.

The thirty pages of "Such Misery Moves through the World" were held together by a mini binder clip, my cover letter at the back. A printed announcement of winners had been stuck into the envelope, on top. My name wasn't on it. I read it twice to be sure. Riffling the manuscript pages revealed no footnotes, marginalia, symbols, underlinings, Doritos dust, or dried bodily fluids. I was disappointed.

I hadn't actually expected to win. Glimmer Train attracts a crowd of fiction writers who've yet to publish stories, so the competition is stiff. Also, the story I submitted is pretty fantastical — "Neil Gaiman channeling Garrison Keillor" is how I've described it, and speculative fiction is not the most likely to win over the magazine's editors. For the $18 entry fee, though, I'd think some indication that my manuscript was read by a conscious, literate, human being would've been a given. Other contests' entry fees entitle entrants to one-year subscriptions or copies of the publication they submitted work for. I only got that binder clip.


These things are contraband. Crossroads' mail room should've confiscated it but was apparently in too great a hurry. So, yeah, the one thing my first writing-contest entry got me I had to throw away. That kind of irony is almost good enough to put in a story.