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Manoa 14.1 (2002) 22-28

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A Day in the Life

Mike Ngo

Peter slams the driver's side door and storms toward the liquor store, mad about Junior calling him a beer gopher. "Don't walk away mad, just walk away!" June yells out the window after him, laughing. Sitting in the back seat, Tuna and I smile at each other, shaking our heads. There's never peace between those two.

Then Tuna's smile leaks into a grimace. I know I have the same look even before I follow his eyes to the barrel of a nickel-plated revolver pointing in the driver's side window: a rival gang member. We must be slipping. Reflecting off the barrel, a neon Budweiser sign flickers from a bad connection, like the rhythm of my heartbeat. This Bud's not for me, I pray and look at the inside of my coffin: a two-door, hatch-back Datsun. The barrel nods. "Remember me?" says Nickel-plate, then June explodes out of the passenger-side door as a white flash floods the inside of the car.

"Boom!" I bolt out of bed, kneeing the metal locker inches above my legs. Cursing my neighbor for slamming his cell door, I lay back down resigned. Escape in dreams is as futile as escape in reality—five gun towers and twenty-foot-high walls are my daily reminders of that truth.

I soak in my surroundings as the last images of the street fade. My cell: two beds, one on top of the other, a sink, a shitter, and two lockers—all inside a space eleven feet long, four and a half feet wide, and eight feet high. I crawl off the top bunk in the lifeless, gray twilight and get ready for work.

While I'm brushing my teeth, a nasal, female keen begins its daily, drawn-out announcement: North Block inmates have ten minutes to exit their cells and get to work or face the consequences. If given only one wish made good at that moment, a wish for a muzzle on the P.A.-system banshee would beat out a wish for a parole date. I grab my Walkman and a Neruda book and exit the cell as my cell-mate enters. My cellie greets me with a smile and a "Good morning." I give a weak grunt and leave. I understand married couples have mornings when their partners' presence is sickening. You can imagine how prisoners forced to live with each other must feel. Ducking and dodging the mental patients who double as prisoners—men who are still drowsy with last night's psych meds—I make my way out of the musty housing unit. [End Page 22]

As I walk up and out of the dungeon, the slate-gray, overcast sky reminds me of climbing out of the Datsun eleven years ago. That day anger, frustration, and, mostly, fear wrapped itself around a cold ball of lead in the pit of my stomach. If Peter hadn't come out of the liquor store shooting, who knows what would've happened. As it was, Nickel-plate retreated behind a car, shot back at Peter, and disappeared around some bushes, hitting nothing but the liquor store. On my way home that night, I promised myself two things: make Nickel-plate regret not killing me, and never again get caught in such a helpless position. I should've known that by exacting vengeance on him, I would find myself in yet another helpless position—indefinitely. But instead of the back seat of a parked car and a drawn .357 Magnum, it's now a recreational yard and five sniper rifles.

Three steps outside the housing unit, two guards are checking IDs, laundry bags, inmates' destinations, anything and everything they want. They are yard cops and my immediate bosses. My job mainly consists of typing write-ups: records of rule violations by inmates. Since I am one of three clerks, my work load is minimal. The majority of the day I spend reading, writing, exercising—doing things that benefit...


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