Check out my new story, The Yellow Dress, part of Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder noir fan fiction!
Check out my new story, The Yellow Dress, part of Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder noir fan fiction!
by Christopher Miguel Flakus
Radial glow of the automaton
Growth comes in spurts
This may be our last hour
Weird shadows cripple streetlights
Halogen washes all colors clean
I taste blood, sharp as aluminum
Orange suntan cataclysm
In New York the crowd chants:
“We hateMuslimss, we hate blacks, we want our country back!”
Is this how
Creeps upon us?
Waves of maddened masses drunk on hate
Aren’t you ashamed?
Allowed to return again with books and coffee
And already late now going on fifteen minutes…
Cigarettes, and papers, a pen, all my things in order
Only now I’m missing my keys, as integral to movement as the will to move itself
Their loss anathema to my design
Perhaps the cushions swallowed them up last night?
I fell asleep watching Shadows, by John Cassavettes
A film I have seen many times before
For precisely that reason I like to play it as I drift off
The voices sound familiar
Like the conversations of old friends
Warm, and comforting, I feel less alone with their voices…
And as I slept perhaps my keys tore loose from my back pocket and made a run for it
Desperate to escape the subjugation they endure
Pushed back tightly so near my ass, so far from heaven
Forgotten and often discarded accidentally…
Yes, I think, discarded!
(EUREKA!) I have found it!
The gold keychain my mother gave me of Saint Christopher
Peeking out from inside trash can in my kitchen, just below a banana peel
Holding Christ baby aloft amongst a sea of detritus
I must have thrown them away along with my empty coffee
But there is no sacrilege in the act
I don’t think they’ve ever looked as holy as they appeared then, awash in the filth
A glint of gold
Amongst the rubble
Of my solitary life
By Christopher Flakus
Ray Hill was sentenced to serve 160 years in prison and, although he has been a free man for decades, he says he is still serving that sentence. Known in Houston as a gay activist who has engaged in a wide range of social causes, he has also been an advocate for prison reform and is especially proud of having founded a weekly radio program that speaks to Texas inmates and the people who care about them.
KPFT’s Prison Show airs on 90.1 FM Fridays at 9pm (online at http://kpft.org/programming/newstalk/prison-show/). The show covers issues of importance to convicts and their loved ones and provides an opportunity during the second hour for callers to “shout out” to their loved ones behind bars.
“When you turn on the microphone on the radio you are talking to everybody,” Ray said to me during our recent interview at The Prison Show’s 36th Anniversary celebration. But, he said, after the callers exchange pleasantries with the hosts and speak directly to their incarcerated loved ones, something special happens.
“These people (are) calling in and talking about their personal lives to people they love as if nobody could hear that but them. Suddenly we are eavesdropping into other people’s lives.”
After The Prison Show went on the air in 1980, Texas publications such as The Houston Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News published stories about it and it later gained national attention in The New York Times and on National Public Radio (NPR).
“They weren’t talking about me, and what I did,” Hill said, “They were talking about those voices. Because that was the compelling part of the show. So I stopped talking to free-world people altogether except talking to them when they called in…when I’m on the show, I’m talking to convicts.”
Former convict Rick Loller is a longtime listener of the show. He first heard it while serving a prison sentence in 1978, most of which was spent in solitary confinement “It was such a beautiful thing to know that someone cared enough to put friends and family in touch with those incarcerated” Rick said to me , “Even though they weren’t my friends or my direct family calling in, it still had a big impact on my life. There were times when that program would come on, and as I did most of my time in segregation, we would each listen to it in our solitary confinement cells. Listening to the show would take us away from the frustrations and the drama of being in prison and away from our loved ones. I can actually remember tears in my eyes while listening to the show, and a guard coming by, and I looked up and said, ‘yeah I’m crying, so what?'”
Prison Show Producer David Collingsworth became aware of the show while serving in Texas prisons and credits it with helping him find his way to sobriety and a clean, lawful life on the outside. He was one of the “eavesdroppers,” listening each week to the loved ones of others calling in and talking about family matters as well as providing words of encouragement.
“It got to be, if someone didn’t call in, you would miss them,” he said.
After being released from prison, Collingsworth sought out Ray Hill and became involved with the program, learning the radio skills necessary to put together a two-hour broadcast that is both informative and compelling. He now works closely with Hank Lamb, the show’s main host, who served time in California before returning to his native Texas and learning about the program.
Ray Hill is about as far from the stereotype of a “criminal” as you can get. He is soft spoken and erudite, his kind face punctuated by a well-kept white beard that lends a scholarly touch to his friendly demeanor. He came out of the closet in 1958, a year before graduating from high school. Hill, a veritable factotum at a young age, was working at various jobs but not making enough to keep him in the lifestyle he wanted to live. After getting a job with a company that printed checks, he began filling some of them out and cashing them. After a spree that ranged from Texas to Louisiana, Nevada, and New Mexico, Hill ended up in San Diego, California’s County Jail charged with fraud. He was clasped in leg-irons and handcuffs with chains running through a leather belt.
“I looked like an extra in a Marquis DeSade movie,” Ray said in an online video interview with Houston attorney Vivian R. King.
After being transferred back to Texas by none other than Marvin Zindler, who, many years before he became a famous Houston television personality, served as a Harris County deputy sheriff, working with the fugitive squad. Hill said he enjoyed the conversations he had with the colorful Zindler during the long drive back to Houston. When Hill arrived at Harris County Jail, he found the conditions to be appalling. This experience lead to an interest in criminal justice reform that has stayed with him ever since.
Hill was sentenced to six years and served 18 months; he was released in 1964. However, his life of crime was not yet over. After his release he “studied” crime, familiarizing himself with alarm systems. Hill and his burglary crew stole antiques, art, jewels, and electronics. After an investigation lead to the discovery of a warehouse full of stolen goods, Hill was busted again and sentenced to 20 consecutive eight-year sentences…160 years in prison.
“I went to prison thinking I was going to do the rest of my life in prison.” Hill said, in his online interview with Vivian King, “That’s a whole different mindset. I went down thinking, ‘how do I live here for the rest of my life?’ That kind of total immersion, of course, made me a very strong student of prison culture, prison life. This is where I live, this is the country I live in.”
Luckily for Hill, he only served 4 years, 4 months, and 17 days after a compromise was reached in his case, changing the consecutive sentence to concurrent and drastically reducing his sentence. Prior to his time in prison Ray Hill had been an activist involved in gay-rights issues as well as protests against the Vietnam war. He became one of the co-founders of KPFT, Houston’s listener-supported community radio station.
“When I got out of prison I was absolutely convinced, because number one, I am gay, and number two, I am an ex-convict, that I was going to be nobody for the rest of my life” Hill told me. “But I had helped build this radio station…and I became the first openly gay, ex convict to manage a broadcast facility in The United States. With that done, I could do anything I wanted to as long as it was radio. So I gave myself some time to talk about prison.”
Hill envisioned using radio to discuss prison reform and life after prison.
“In 1975 through 1980, if you went to prison you were ignored for the rest of your life. I had learned this business about closets from my experience as a gay person. So the first thing I did was go on the air and tell people to come out of the closet about going to prison. By coming out of the closet, what had been a liability might be accepted by others as a sign of honesty and courage.”
Upon release, it is not uncommon for ex-convicts to find themselves facing a difficult world. In a sense, many remain invisible. Grim statistics show colossal recidivism rates. The vast majority of convicts committed their crimes due to drug use, and yet treatment options are still limited both inside and in the free-world. The brand of convict is a major hindrance to employment and housing, not to mention the social stigma it carries. Ultimately, it is programs like The Prison Show, and people like Ray Hill who can make a difference. They decry the crisis of mass-incarceration and push to humanize a deeply bureaucratic and failed prison system and offer hope to many of those who remain behind bars in Texas.
By Christopher Flakus
Xixitla, Rainforest outside San Luis Potosi, 1954 :
Plutarco leads me through the jungle. There, beneath a canopy of rain forest where my many birds swim through the air from one great stone to another I feel the joy of exile singing through the jungle and I am pleased. Birds like fireworks scream with color and Plutarco is also pleased. This Xanadu is our legacy and both of us are pleased.
“Aqui,” Plutarco says, “The house with a roof like a whale,” moving his hands before his face, looking between his fingers at the marvelous finished structure. A Macaw emits a high-pitched squeal. Something rustles in the garden beyond where we are standing. “Si,” I say. “It is perfect.” Spires of stone reach out like grey fingers from the valley. Steps leading nowhere. Stories upon stories upon stories of Eden…
Mexico City, Colonia Roma, 2011:
The cobblestone is shining. It is wet and dark with Mexico City rains that only hours before fell all around us twinkling in the afternoon sun. It is dark now and her face is quivering. Her cheeks are glistening, not with rain but with tears that she fights back unsuccessfully. I also feel them brimming at the corners of my eyes but I can’t allow myself to cry. It would be obscene for me to cry right now. I don’t deserve to cry.
“I don’t understand,” she says, “We had everything planned. Your bags are in the backseat. Julio is on his way over right now, he just went to get gas. I don’t understand. You’re staying because of her, aren’t you?”
“No,” I say, but the truth is I don’t really know. The truth is I say no, because it is the only thing I can manage to say and it is empty and meaningless but I say it anyway.
“This has been our dream for how long? And now we can finally do it and you…you’re scared. You’re too scared you might actually be happy.”
“No,” I say again, “Maybe…I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
“Please,” she scoffs and turns her body away from me, “Don’t say you’re sorry. Don’t say that.”
We’re standing outside of Sofia’s apartment. Sofia being the “her” that Claire is asking me about. We met her a few nights earlier and I could tell she was trouble. We played records all night drinking Indio beer that was very cold and delicious and we smoked her pot. One night we ended up staying too late and she said we were welcome to her guest bedroom. I woke up thirsty, my head throbbing and walked to the kitchen for some mineral water. Sofia was there, wearing an over-sized band shirt, some Mexican rock band I didn’t recognize. Her hair was dark and her eyes were dark and neither of us said anything. We began to kiss and I felt panicked and elated at the same time. I stopped, Sofia smiled, and she went to her room. I stood there for some time fighting myself. I walked back into the guest room and lay down next to Claire, who was sound asleep. I held her the rest of the night but was unable to go back to sleep myself.
I have been seeing Claire, on and off, since we were kids. We’re in our twenties now, both visiting Mexico. She lives in Florida and I live in Texas and we have planned this for months. We have planned this for months and I have just fucked up everything…again.
Xixitla had been her dream for years. It was her dream, though over time it became mine as well. She is the one who first told me about Las Pozas. I wanted to go. My bags were packed. I want to go but now, suddenly, I don’t think I can. I don’t think I will. I feel the impending wave of regret rolling back. Either way I am going to regret something. This is what I hate to do most. These situations that keep occurring are what I try to avoid at all costs: making a big decision. Only now my back is against the wall and I have to make a decision and I hate it.
“I just…I want to go. I just don’t think it would be fair, you know, I am staying with Francisco and…”I trail off, light a cigarette. She looks at me, waiting for me to say something real. Waiting for me to say something true.
“You know that’s bullshit. Francisco talked to me. He thinks it would be good if you went. This is about that girl. You just met her. You don’t even know her. You might think there is something there but really, you’re just running. You’re a coward. You weren’t like this when I met you…you were…different. I hoped that going would help you see that. I think going could save you, but maybe I am just a fool for even wanting that.”
It hurts to hear her say this because I know it’s true and she is so good at speaking truth and when it comes to truth, for me, I am a mute. I am incapable of speaking a single true word and I don’t know why.
“My methadone…I didn’t bring enough. I thought by going, you know, I could get clean off everything and no more maintenance but…I can’t. I don’t have time to go get it from Francisco’s without totally ruining the trip. You should go on without me. I mean, it isn’t as big a deal as we’re making it. We can always go again next year.”
This almost feels true. I did forget the methadone. I don’t know how I could have forgotten something that important. It was just the allure of the jungle, and Claire, and I really thought I could kick this time and be free…but standing in the street, all drizzle and cold, my body tugs at me and going anywhere without that methadone seems impossible. I have sabotaged myself, again.
“You did that on purpose. I know you,” Claire says, “You can just quit…I know it’s hard but,” she looks at me imploringly, “You can finally get off all that. You can be you again. I miss you so fucking much sometimes it just makes me sick.”
The little red Volkswagen pulls up sputtering beside us. Julio is driving. Claire tells him to give her a minute. He can already tell I wasn’t coming. He smiles at me, the son of a bitch. He is in love with Claire, of course, and now is his big chance. I feel rotten inside.
“You know this is it,” She says to me. Claire is no longer crying though her voice is still trembling when she speaks. “It’s your last chance, if you don’t get in that car now…” she can’t bring herself to say the rest but I know what she is trying to tell me.
I lift my brown duffel bag out of the trunk. I kiss Claire one last time and her lips are salty with tears and they are coming whether she fights them or not.
I shut the trunk with a feeling of dread and sadness.
As I watch them slip over the wet cobblestone I still think to myself, “There will be another chance,” because the universe seemed fond of offering me seemingly endless chances at winning.
I don’t see the losing streak before it comes because I am used to winning and when you are winning the concept of losing is a strange and difficult thing to comprehend.
San Luis Potosi, 1954:
“Café? Edward?” Plutarco asks and I accept. Last night I dreamed of a bird with many heads diving down my throat. I felt its many beaks and the feeling was not one of pain. We sip our coffee then, and both of us are enjoying the taste of this morning and yet I can tell our hearts were somehow left behind, in the mountains, in the stones, in our little dream city. We would have stayed there longer, but night fell and we are not meant to live inside the rain forest although sometimes we may tell ourselves that we were. The little dream city was built for dreamers who would look upon with wonder for many years to come. It was built for them, not for Plutarco and I to enjoy. We are merely the parents of this spectacular child, and like all parents we must one day let go.
With what new joy would they move across the steps and falls, swells of jungle, streams of water and stone all running together like hot wax? They will think to themselves: what a marvel they created! And this was enough. It was more than enough.
Plutarco sits next to me, lighting a cigarette and sipping from his own coffee. We watch the cars pass by in the streets and we are both pleased.
by Christopher Flakus
Winter is winding to an end and
The leaves are like Russian Dolls in the wind
Your stepfather tried to do something
Now everything is crashing down
There have been six bad months preceding this
And cold and shivers
And dope sick
But we pushed through the winter
And burrowed back up to the surface
From the deep
Of the underground
You explain to me in great detail
The circumference of my failures
And how I could never understand
Not even a little
But I still dream of your golden hair
And the way you smell
when we first wake up
In the morning
We were left for dead
Encased in ice
Frozen down there
We couldn’t afford to carry ourselves any further
And although we step lighter now, we are incomplete
Now I am not sure whether or not to go get coffee
At some place I’ve never been before somewhere out in The Heights
Houston is sunny today
I wonder, should I apologize for that?
I cannot distinguish the beating of my own heart
From the ringing of your phone
Which must be silenced somewhere in your back pocket
Far away from me
I am afraid you might not remember
The day we went to Galveston and drank beer beneath the carousel
And played tic-tac-toe in the diary I had given you
You had told me that you needed to see the ocean
I only know one thing for certain
Winter is over and the times we had may be lost
For better or for worse
Forever or only for a little while
I can’t tell what is good for me and I don’t want coffee
I’ve just recently learned how to help myself, you said
So how can I be expected to help someone else?
And then you do a pretty good impression of me
And it hurts so much that I almost laugh
(From collection of Poems, “Bear Down Into Hell With Me As Only A True Friend Would… Poems 2012-2015”)