The following is a result of a writing exercise from “the sunlit desk”:
The gruesome face carved in the granite is a memorial. I carved it there to make the world remember him. His name will be forgotten. All names are. A few leave a legacy of past brilliance and ingenuity. Even an unspeakable evil will get some people remembered. For lads like us there are no remembrances. Who’d want to remember us? We’re the dregs of society, destined to serve what’s left of our lives in a maximum security hell on earth.
What’d I do to deserve this fate? It’s been so long now I barely remember myself. This I do remember. I’m here for good reason. I’m proof that youth and stupidity don’t mix. Just add booze and I earned a one way ticket to Angola, Louisiana.
Life here’s hot and hard. But while the rest of the lands suffering through the Depression, I get three squares and enough work to keep a man honest. It’s just a shame it came too late.
Tard came to Angola four years after me. From the moment he stepped off the paddy wagon we knew he was off. He hit the ground with a wide smile on his face, like this was some sort of resort. The guards went to wiping it off his face right away. They gave him such a beating he spent the first two weeks in the infirmary. When he made it to the yard he was still smiling Everyone called him Tard because it was short for retard. Anyone who smiled that much must have wires crossed in his head. You don’t smile in hell.
With the smiling face he just invited abuse. He wasn’t a big man, so the abusing was easy. It came from everywhere. Guards, lifers, newbies, all made sport of Tard. And he kept on smiling. On the chain gangs he was given the worst jobs. He smiled. One the chow line he smiled at the inmate servers and said “thank-you.” More than a few spat in his food. He smiled.
I only spoke to him once. We were both crushing rocks. It was sent there for doing more of the stuff that earned me a ticket to Angola in the first place. Tard was often sent there for no reason in particular. At first I didn’t want to be seen talking with him. The others might think I’m soft on him. But as the day wore on the only thing worse than the heat, humidity and the bugs was the silence.
“What’re you in for?” I asked.
He looked up and smiled. “Does it matter?”
“No, I suppose not.” I said. I had to know why he was the way he was. “Why do you do that? Smile, I mean? Are you really a retard?”
Tard looked over to the guards. They were off in the distance, resting beneath the shade of a pecan tree. Occasionally they’d pick up a few fallen nuts and crack them open for a snack. Tard had a look on his face like a child cringing under the threat of discipline. “I don’t want to tell you.” he said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“’Cause you’ll laugh, or hurt me like the rest of them.” he said.
“I haven’t yet.” I said.
That caused him to sit up. I could tell that he was doing some hard thinking. I got the impression it was something he didn’t do very often.
“If I tell you, do you promise not to tell anyone else? I mean, really promise. Cross your heart and hope to die? It’s a secret, you know.” he said. There was an earnestness in his face.
I tried to match his expression. “I promise. I swear.”
“On your momma’s grave?” he asked.
“Sure.” I said.
“Say it. It don’t mean nothing if you don’t say it.” he said. Tard looked deadly serious. It was the first time I hadn’t seen him smile.
“I swear on my momma’s grave.” I said.
“Okay then. My momma taught me this. She said Lionel, the world’s gonna control you, son. They’ll tell you what to say and what to think and how to live. But they can’t control your smile. They can’t take that away from you. It’s yours as long as you got the breath God gave you. No matter what they do to you, you can smile. Never let them take that away from you.” Tears rolled down his cheeks. “Then she died. I stayed with her. For days I did. And I practiced smiling. I loved my momma. I’d never let her down, see? But the gentlemen who came didn’t believe me.”
The guards were finished their pecan snacks and saw their prisoners slacking off. I took a fist in the chops. Lionel took the butt end of a rifle. He was knocked unconscious. It was the last time I saw Lionel alive.
A few days later the guards put Lionel in the yard with the hardcore lifers. They saw it as some kind of sport. Form what I heard Lionel kept smiling as he fell. It was only when they stepped back that we all saw the agony in his face. That’s why I carved his broken face in the stone, a reminder to the bastards who took away his smile.