The Legend of Potter’s Field
by John Haymaker
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Marty jostled in the bus seat, his ankles and wrists bound with iron cuffs no more unusual to him than wearing socks or gloves, given his history of arrests. But this time, convicted of Murder One and sentenced to life, the shackles might be forever. His thick sandy blonde hair stood with the lightness of a wire spring over his brow. His nose, slender and chiseled, set high above his slight chin, gave him a smug appearance that no amount of trouble ever succeeded in wiping from his face.
The road from the courthouse to the prison rounded craggy rock jagged and barren as his feelings. Not knowing where he was going, the ride seemed long; bus gears groaned and grated, and the clutch clipped metal from the uphill strain. Occasionally the road left the river and meandered below a view of the prison, a fortress of stone hewn from the same sheer granite cliff that formed the prison’s back wall.
Even before the bus delivered him to the hell where he’d spend his last living days behind cement and iron, they passed a brown barren plateau where bulldozers leveled the ground, Bobcat tractors jawed the earth open, and gulls picked over freshly upturned soil.
A guard laughed and said, “In Potter’s Field all you get is a slab marker. No name. No date. Just your prison number etched in cement.”
Another guard gestured toward him with a middle finger: “This is your number right here.”
Long after the bus turned the next bend, leaving the plateau behind them, Marty still saw the heavy machinery toiling against the earth, where bulldozers never ceased and Bobcats scooped graves endlessly.
That had been thirty-eight years earlier, when Marty was twenty-one. He never forgot the rambling bus ride from the courthouse to the prison. The glimpse of Potter’s Field plagued his memory and toiled his sleep. The only solace to be found once inside the prison walls were the letters he received over the years, heartfelt letters from his Auntie and Cuz expressing regret at his lot in life.
His father had abandoned his mother and him the day he was born, and a string of his mother’s ill-mannered boyfriends left him feeling unwanted. Early on, his half-brother, Joey, wrote to him often. And twice letters came from his only daughter, whom he’d seen only as a newborn and never heard from again. Those two letters were worn fragile from handling.
Time between letters seemed long, and the stone walls and iron bars converged, narrowing until he felt the walls closing in. And always, always, Potter’s Field lurked in the back of his mind, especially when he was sent to the hole, a cavernous sub-basement dungeon of cells dug in bedrock reserved to mete out punishment to inmates who dared to break rules. He felt buried alive there, serving month-long stretches in darkness, in squalid and dank foulness, hosed down once a week. The slightest sounds — the settling foundation, stone grating against mortar — amplified into shrieks and moans until he wondered if he were already in hell.
* * *
Marty had seen only one funeral: his grandfather’s. It was held in a small town cemetery, a square mile of marble headstones and spires of granite laid out in neat rows in all directions across a manicured, carpet-like lawn surrounded by a short chain link fence. His grandfather’s grave lay beneath the low-hanging boughs of a huge oak said to be three hundred years old.
An honor guard attended the funeral and gave the grandfather a twenty-one gun salute. Marty recalled the snap of their boots, the slap of their hands to stock and barrel as the soldiers cocked their rifles before the three volleys of seven reports each. Two soldiers folded an American flag by precise turns and tucks into a triangle and offered it to his grandfather’s widow, who received it to her bosom.
Marty reflected and felt shame, felt himself being thrown out like garbage, defiled by guards in a weed-strewn Potter’s Field. No mourners, no pallbearers, no flowers. No eulogy. No amen.
Marty could swear he saw the field from another cell once. He said he stood on a chair, pressed his hands on the window ledge, craned his neck just enough to look out a high, narrow glass pane to peer past the corner of a guard tower. And he saw the field, saw the bulldozers that never stopped leveling the field, saw the Bobcats that always had a fresh grave ready. He looked for it now from his current cell while the morning sun burned away clouds ringing the cliff and, though he couldn’t see it, he imagined it just the same.
“Are you standing up there looking for your Potter’s Field again?” His cellmate, Bishop, a lanky middle-aged skinhead convicted of stockpiling weapons, had just woken up and was sitting on the top bunk. Wearing holey Y-fronts and a dirty, sleeveless t-shirt, he dangled his legs over the thin pad of mattress and asked with a sigh, “Is that even a real thing?” Palmer, a young ex-boxer bunking below Bishop, looked up and shook his head, smirking and rolling his eyes cuckoo-like.
“It is,” Marty said, turning around in time to catch Palmer’s mockery. Marty’s nose, twice broken, still managed to be carried high even as his eyes seemed to droop, and he raised it a notch higher as he dead-eyed Palmer. Marty stepped down from the chair. His hair was grey now but still carried a spring. He flinched a cheek to raise a sneer when he took a seat on the lower bunk opposite Palmer, who sat up with his fists raised, ready to defend himself.
“Nobody else I ever talked to in this whole joint ever saw it out there,” Bishop said. With that, Bishop jumped to the floor, stepped near the bars and whistled with two fingers in his mouth, a shrill, commanding pitch that echoed down the cement corridor. “Hey, Cooch, you down there?”
It was open period in the cellblock. Cell doors were open, and inmates were allowed to socialize. Cooch was a newcomer to the prison, having arrived just the week before, but he knew to heed Bishop’s call. Cooch stepped straightaway down to Bishop and Marty’s cell and brushed his hair back as he leaned in, strangely able to dead-eye both Bishop and Marty while maintaining a watchful eye down the corridor.
“Did you see any cemetery on your bus ride up here, any Potter’s Field?” Bishop asked of Cooch.
Palmer butted in: “You don’t need to ask Cooch anything. Marty admitted he didn’t even see it himself on the bus ride down for his retrial or on the ride back.” Convinced he’d be acquitted, Marty had been in another world on the way down and saw nothing. When the jury reaffirmed his conviction, guards had to restrain Marty, leaving him with a serious head injury.
“You just piss off about that. I had a concussion afterward.”
“And you been bats ever since,” Palmer said, “but maybe Cooch here can knock something loose.”
Marty rose up, furious and took a swing at Palmer, who managed to keep an arm’s length away and dodge the hit, cursing to Cooch, “Tell him, damn it. Tell him,” all the while slapping back at Marty.
“I already told him, no,” Cooch said, pointing to Marty.
Bishop stepped back into the fray between Palmer and Marty and held them apart. “Tell him again ’cause he obviously ain’t understanding.”
Cooch threw his arms overhead and set his hands to trembling like a Baptist preacher. “As God is my witness,” he said, “I didn’t see nothing like that on my way in.”
“With that lazy eye you got, you ain’t no kind of witness anyway,” Marty said and flicked a hand menacingly toward Cooch’s eyes, but Cooch didn’t flinch. “Maybe you were sleeping or maybe you came in another way, a back way.”
But there was only one way into this maximum-security facility in upstate New York — Mad Max they called it, a place reserved for inmates whose horrible crimes committed outside the walls paled in comparison to the carnage they committed inside: chokings, rape, torture, gang fights, brutal beatings, murder and hangings. Few there were ever paroled; their sentences only became heavier the longer they stayed. There was no back road, could be none, since the prison was built against a vertical cliff of solid granite.
Overhearing their conversation, Low Brow hollered from across the hall, “Hey, Marty, I heard there is such a place.” Low Brow crossed the hall and threw his burly arm around Cooch’s neck in a headlock, pretending to wrestle. “I heard the guards bind your wrists to your ankles so the devil can fuck you in the ass for all eternity,” he added, jabbing Cooch in the ribs before allowing Cooch to wriggle free of his hold.
“Screw you!” Marty said and tore the butt end off his Camel cigarette, flicked it across the cell into the toilet, and lit up. “What are they doing with the bodies then, when their relatives don’t claim them?” Marty took a few deep drags off his cigarette and flicked the stub into the toilet. “I’m telling you; it’s out there.”
Marty had seen a few of his buddies waste away on the inside of Mad Max, their skin ashen, muscles atrophied, gaunt as ghouls, and eyes turned to lifeless dead stares. Relatives never claimed the corpses, and Marty assumed the prison disposed of them in the Potter’s Field outside the walls.
“In your particular case, with all the trouble you’ve caused the Warden, you’d be lucky if they did throw you out there,” Bishop said. “Honestly, be thankful he don’t just cremate you and flush you down the toilet.”
“At least you’ll be outside,” Cooch said. “You’re buried alive in here. Most of the time you’re down in the hole wallowing in your own scat.”
“One of the snitches we got in this cellblock is going to turn up dead if he don’t learn to watch his mouth,” Marty said, sneering toward Palmer.
“Don’t be looking at me,” Palmer said. “Maybe try keeping that nose of yours clean.”
“I don’t care what happens to me after I’m dead,” Low Brow said, “as long as they don’t hang me and make me crap my pants.”
“Really? You serious?” Marty said. “Way I look at it, you did your time in here, then you done paid your debt to society, no reason to punish you for all eternity by throwing your ass out like garbage.”
He recalled playing hide-and-seek with his little brother Joey among the gravestones after grandfather’s funeral. Grandmother chastised them, not for playing among the headstones but for walking behind the markers where bodies lay, six feet down. Marty wanted the comfort of knowing some passing stranger, a little girl or boy, would run near his grave and a parent would warn them away from his plot, make them show respect to the dead, to consider the life once lived and value of the deceased interred below. “It’s about respect, just a little respect.”
“And on Memorial Day, you’d like folks bringing flowers,” Cooch said, snickering.
“That’s exactly it. People know I’m being held here, and they feel for me. They send me stuff. You think they’ll bring me flowers to Potter’s Field? They wouldn’t know where to look, if they did.” For the last thirty years, nearly everyone except Auntie and Cuz had forgotten Marty. His mother had died long ago, maybe of shame, and Auntie had since stepped in to send him packages for birthdays and Christmas and any clothing he requested — even his underwear, an embarrassing size 52. He had grown fat in prison, sitting waiting for death, for he had long since given up lifting weights; that was for the young ones who still had hope and fight left in them.
“You got nothing to worry about,” Bishop said. “You got your Auntie and Cuz. They can get you a plot with a pretty view and a satin-lined casket if that makes you feel better. You know they’d do it for you.”
“I don’t want it like that. It ain’t theirs to do, and they’d know it. Half the time I think they do things for me out of pity, just because they know little brother Joey ain’t stepping up.” Having your auntie send you cookies in a package was pity. Having your auntie buying your underwear was pathetic, but having to ask relatives to make funeral arrangements when they knew his only brother wouldn’t lift a finger was humiliation he could not endure.
“Way I heard it, you and Cuz grew up like brothers,” Palmer said.
It was true. The cousin and Marty were the same age, born just two weeks apart; grew up together, partners in crime. The fact that one or both would land in prison was a foregone conclusion. The grandmother always said, “What one didn’t think of, the other did.”
Copyright © 2019 by John Haymaker