Mixing outlaw humor, sci-fi adventure, and cutting social criticism, this collection draws upon John Shirley’s entire arsenal. The title essay, "New Taboos" is his prescription for a radical revisioning of America. A new short story, "State of Imprisonment," is a horrifying and hilarious look at the privatization of the prison industry. The one percent gets their comeuppance in "Where the Market's Hottest." His TEDx address (delivered in Brussels in 2011) presents his proudly contrarian views of the next 40 years. Also featured is an Outspoken Interview showcasing the author's progressive sensibility, deep humanity, and mordant wit.
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By John Shirley
PM PressCopyright © 2013 John Shirley
All rights reserved.
A STATE OF IMPRISONMENT
"Minor offenders who cannot pay a fine or fee often find themselves in jail cells. And felony offenders who have completed their prison sentences are often sent back to jail when they cannot pay fees and fines they owe because they could not earn money while locked up. ... The right to counsel is rarely brought up."
— The New York Times, July 13, 2012,
"Return of the Debtors' Prisons."
"I JUST REMEMBER HOW much it hurt when they put the tracker in there. 'This isn't going to hurt,' he says. Fuck that! It hurt! But at least they used a local ..."
"You don't need a local, you're numb all over now," Whore Tense said, poising the homemade scalpel over Rudy's ass.
"The fuck I am! A little drunk and slightly opiated — ow! Motherfucker, Whore, that hurts!"
Rudy was lying naked face down on the bunk; Whore Tense had just started cutting into the fat of Rudy's ass-cheek. "Stop being a baby," she said. "Actually I'm almost there already ... won't have to cut into muscle ... sometimes they put it too deep ... used to be easy to get 'em out when they put 'em right under the skin ... my first one was in my forearm here, what an ugly bump they made on your skin ... I still have a scar ..."
Rudy figured Whore Tense was talking just to keep his mind off the pain. She was a kindly sort.
They were in Rudy's cell, with one of the red imitation- wool blankets hanging over the window in the door to block the cameras and the guard patrol's view, and that was good for a while, anybody checking the monitors would assume they were having sex — which was usually tolerated during certain hours.
Rudy could hear blood tip-tapping onto the floor as she dug the prisoner tracing device out of him. "Don't sound like you're catching that blood," he muttered into the pillow.
"Always miss some. You paid for the clean up, I said I'd clean it up, don't worry about it —"
"Keep your voice down! Hold on now. Almost ..."
The pain ebbed a bit. There was a clack of instruments — the stolen tweezers probably. Then another jolt of agony ... and it receded, became a mere throb.
"I got it!" Whore Tense announced breathily, turning it into a squeal.
"Now comes the big fun. Sewing me up ..."
"No, I got sealant spray and a skin clamp ..."
She pilfered the wound-closing materials from infirmary storage. Whore Tense's prison job was assistant to the clinician in the pod's infirmary; she was a former RN. She had been Jose Mendoza when she was an RN — when she'd gone about as a he. Transgender, she'd gone by Hortense on the outside; in Statewide she got dubbed Whore Tense — with a slight pause between the words — and she went along with the joke.
As Hortense, she'd gotten into debt behind hormone treatments, breast implants, loans to pay for the sex re-assignment — for the operation she never got. She didn't get the hormones here; there were no transgender rights in Statewide. This was Arizona, not California. So Whore Tense had to shave, and lost some body softness. But she got hold of some makeup — made some herself when she had to — and managed her look.
Rudy felt the clamp's pinch and the sealant spray, and hoped it would stay in place. He doubted it.
She cleaned the blood off his ass with Purell wipes, talking to him the while. "Steve'll be here in an hour, what he told me. I got to go to Spanish ... That boy Doggy going to be there, he sits right in front of me on purpose, I know he likes me ..."
Whore Tense had been raised by second-generation punk rockers; her dad was Hispanic but he'd never taught her the lingo. She was learning Spanish at a prison class, something about roots. Rumor was that the ed-unit was closing down the Spanish class soon because the lockiffers figured people used it to help them escape into Mexico. But who got anywhere near the border? The state of Arizona was one big privatized prison, so it was just more prison — prison roads, prison buildings, prison fences — between this section and the border. Impossible to know if anyone got through all that. News was censored and Statewide went out of its way to withhold information on the maze of buildings outside pod 775. The ones who were caught in escape attempts went to ARU, the Absconder Recovery Unit, or just never came back at all and the lockiffers made sure you were told they were "shot going over the wire." Or, "the worm crunched 'em."
Mexico. Steve claimed they could get there jumping a robot train, if they could work down the roads ten miles or so. Only, it seemed to Rudy that, chances were, Steve was full of shit. Unless he wasn't.
Whore Tense gave him the sippy cup; wincing, he lifted up on his elbows, drank a little of the Vicodin mix. "Ugh."
"Don't drink any more, mess with your head too much. You got to keep it close to clear."
He lay back down, head on his arms, drifting into a dream that wasn't a daydream — but it was half fantasy ... Mexico ... a Cantina ... black-eyed women ... and then Steve was hissing in his ear.
Rudy opened his eyes. "You're here too soon, hodey."
"You've been laying there more'n an hour."
"I have? Whoa. Stoned."
"Get over it. We got to move."
"About that ..."
"Don't pussy out on me."
"Man, this shit hurts. How am I going to climb anything?"
"You're going to have some pain while you do it, so fucking what."
"Where's the Ho'tense? What'd she do with the tracker?"
"She took it with her like she's supposed to. It's being passed around the yard. So you'll register as bein' out there. You're committed, Rudy."
"I could take the tracker back."
"And what, Rudy? Stick it in the wound?"
"I don't know ..."
"Come on, get the fuck up."
Groaning, Rudy pushed himself up, turned to sit on the bunk, wincing, leaning his weight on the unwounded half of his ass. "Ow."
"You don't think I'm all about ow, too, Rudy? I had it done same as you, hodey-man. I got almost no fat on my ass, either. I'm standing here like a hero."
"You're some hero ..."
Steve was lean as ropes tied to broomsticks. He had a hollow-cheeked face, deep-set eyes, was missing his front teeth — he always seemed to find a way to get hold of meth — and his arms were spiraled with blue tattoos shaped like barbed wire and devil faces; he had a tuft of beard extending from his pointy chin; his hair was stubble.
Rudy was taller than Steve, and softer, chunkier, hairier. They'd both been working out to prep for the run, but Rudy hadn't made as much progress as he'd hoped.
Slowly, achingly, Rudy got dressed. "I don't know, Steve. Jeezis fuck, hodey, you're five years younger'n me."
"You're not even fifty yet." Soon as Rudy had his orange prison-issue pants on, Steve turned to pull the curtaining blankets off the bars. "Just cowboy the fuck up."
Rudy groaned. "What time is it?"
"Almost zero hour, kumquat." Steve sometimes called people kumquat, for no reason anyone could figure out except maybe tweaker humor. "And it's got to be today. It's Sunday, crew's not there and maintenance door is still unlocked. Those pipes'll still be sittin' out. And it's almost dark."
This time of year, it'd get dark pretty damn soon. Someone would be carrying his tracker chip back here, in a few minutes, as prearranged — they'd toss it on his bunk. The tracer program would think he was bunked up ...
Rudy shook his head but let Steve lead him out of the cell, down the tier, and down the stairs. The pain in his buttock chewed on him as he went, taking a bite with each step.
He glanced at the digital clock over the guard booth. Had to be now. They were both privileged for free passage within area A and B for another half hour ... and no longer than that.
Keep going. One foot after the other, man.
Rudy was still doped up as he walked mechanically along — only coming to himself when they got to the dig site, where the enclosing walls cornered on the southeast side. The chilly air and a sharp smell of turned, damp earth brought him out of the fog. He thought of graves, and stared into what seemed a grave ... and then realized it was a trench for a pipe that hadn't yet been laid, just inside the corner.
They were thirty-six-inch-diameter wastewater pipes — Rudy could see the lengths of black plastic pipe stacked up against the cinderblock wall of the interior barricade. There weren't any windows on this side of the prison because they didn't want the inmates to have a view of whatever was past the wall. Which had given rise to a theory ... that Statewide staff lied about the extent of the prison system. That it wasn't really as big as all Arizona. Rumor had pod 775 only about forty miles from the southern border, and if this was, as some claimed, actually the southern edge of the prison, then it was desert between here and the border. There'd be the occasional drone flying over, out there. But a man would have a chance, if he could jump that robot freight train ...
Steve was taking several white towels from inside his shirt. He must have stuffed them there when they'd passed through laundry.
"You sure it's blind on this side?" Rudy asked, his tongue thick from the Vicodin.
"Cameras dead over here," Steve said, going over to manhandle a segment of pipe. "Just another thing they're 'working on.' Hey hodey-man, that ever a surprise, something doesn't work around here?"
No, Rudy reflected, that was never a surprise. The McCrue corporation spent as little as possible on prison maintenance. Air conditioning often went out in the summer; heat in the winter. Electricity had blacked out twice in the last three months. Water stopped flowing five or six times a year. McCrue would do maintenance on the auto guards before it'd fix air conditioning, of course. Sometimes the computer-controlled cell doors opened in the middle of the night, for no reason. The gates would immediately close again, because of an emergency override switch.
Wincing when he bent over, Rudy helped drag the six-foot pipe segments out, and lined them up. Steve started hooking them together. The wall was only thirty-three feet high here, not counting the antipersonnel wire. Maybe this would work.
Rudy could see blood blotching through Steve's loose orange trousers, in the back, where his own tracker wound was starting to bleed from all the activity. He felt his own rump — yeah, it was starting to bleed too.
Just power through it, he told himself. Cowboy up.
He looked around for guards, living or robotic; didn't see any. Didn't see any inmates, either. This area was supposed to be closed off but a maintenance door had been left unlocked for the sewage pipe crew.
"It's show time, kumquat," Steve said. He took the lower end of the joined-up length of pipe, Rudy took the upper, being taller, and they leaned it in place against the cornering of two walls. The connected pipes sagged a little, but Steve had jammed them together hard. It might hold. Climbing was going to hurt, though.
Rudy steadied the lower end of the pipe, as Steve draped the towels around his neck and started to clamber up, like an islander going up a palm tree after a coconut. He used the slight bulge at the joins for handholds. His weight pressed the pipe's lower end into the soft, sandy earth. Rudy kept expecting it to fall apart, but it didn't. Steve didn't weigh as much as he did, though.
It was dark now. When Steve got to the top he was a silhouette against a blue-black sky. His voice was a hoarse whisper. "You coming or not?"
"No way it's gonna hold my weight ..."
But Steve was up there, hunching on the wall, looking down at him. Waiting. Rudy could see the towels Steve had draped over the antipersonnel wire, to make it climbable. If he turned back now, he'd look weak in the pod, and anyway he'd lie awake nights wondering if he'd lost his chance. He was stuck in the system, here; he wasn't likely to get out for at least fifteen years. Just too much debt, too many rule infractions. They had too much incentive to keep prisoners in.
He wanted to see Lulie. He could arrange for her to come to Mexico ...
"Are you coming or what, Rudy?"
"I guess." Rudy took a deep breath and started up the pipe, teeth grinding with the pain in his buttocks. After a few yards he felt blood seeping down the back of his leg, and the pipe sagging under his weight. He expected the pipes to fall apart at the joins any second.
Then Steve grabbed him by the collar, and Rudy scrambled the rest of the way up.
He and Steve starting pulling the plastic pipe up, grunting with the weight of it. It stayed together, jammed by their climb. It seemed all one piece of pipe now.
They got it up, then over the wire, and tipped the pipe down. Then lost it. The pipe fell sideways with a wince-making clunk to the ground on the other side.
"Shit!" Steve muttered. But he wasn't talking about the pipe. He was standing, holding onto the towel-padded, waist-high razor wire, staring south.
"Shit," Rudy echoed. They had both hoped the rumor was true; that they might see nothing but desert beyond the wall. But prison rumors were usually wrong, and what they saw was a road, a deserted highway. And on the other side of the highway stood another wall. And beyond that, a ways back, was another wall. And beyond that, another prison building rose up ... and guard towers ...
Along the highway were alternating streetlamps, leaning in over the tarmac to cast down cones of yellow light ...
"Shit," Steve said, yet again.
"Yeah. We better go back, man."
Steve shook his head. "We're locked out now, dumb shit. The time. You know? Locked out of the tier! We got to keep going! That highway has to lead to a way out. We've still got the pipe for the outer walls."
"We're taking the pipe with us down the road?"
"We got no choice, kumquat." Steve was already climbing over the wire, using the towels.
Rudy groaned and followed. "We got no way down ..."
"Sure we do," said Steve, pausing on the top of the wall, the other side of the wire. "You want some of this before you go?"
He held a little plastic bindle of yellow powder over the wire. Prison meth. Cheap and dirty.
"No, hodey, I don't need a fucking heart attack on top of bleeding to death."
Steve shrugged, grinned, horned some up off a fingernail — and stepped off into space, pulling Rudy with him.
"Shit fuck!" Rudy hissed.
Then he hit the ground. First his feet, then his wounded ass — then he was sliding in sand until he felt dirt clods on his shoulder blades. He jarred to a stop.
He heard Steve chuckle beside him. He thought that was funny?
"You hurt, Rudy?"
Rudy was trying to figure that out himself. He turned over, got to his feet, swaying. His feet hurt, maybe one was a little sprained; his ass cheek was bleeding. But nothing seemed broken. "Not much."
"Okay. Let's get the pipe ..."
They picked up the still-joined pipe, carried it across the highway, half running, Steve taking the lead, like two men with a battering ram. They got it to the ditch — and both of them dived flat in the concrete ditch as headlights came around the curve of the highway ahead.
A car hummed up, and by, headlights coming, tail-lights going, all in a moment.
They lay there by the pipe, breathing hard, listening. No more cars.
But Rudy thought he heard something else: a whining sound overhead. "You hear a drone?" he whispered.
"Maybe ... maybe so ... but they're always whizzin' around the grounds. They're self-guided, these around here, and cheap as shit. They don't see much, especially in the dark."
Rudy doubted they didn't see much, but he didn't argue. He didn't even want to think about the drones. Or the worm.
They stood, and wrestled the pipe up to waist level. Sweat was coming out on Rudy's forehead, burning his eyes.
"Come on, Rudy, goddamnit. We keep going, we find that robot train."
"Don't get ahead of me, you'll pull the pipe apart, Steve."
They trudged along till another set of lights came, this time from behind them. They flattened and the truck rumbled by. They waited till it was around a curve, and then they started off again ...
There was a sliding, chuffing, metallic grinding sound, from behind ...
Rudy was afraid to look.
"Fuck, fuck," Steve muttered. "They sent out the ..."
Feeling all clenched up, Rudy dropped his end of the pipe, turned — and looked.
The worm was coming at them like a bad dream. It was about sixty feet long, its body about three feet in radius. It was multi-segmented, its outer skin a mesh tube, nickel-titanium alloy for its muscle — shape-memory alloy expanded and contracted to some internal heat-based prompt. The former IT engineer in Rudy almost admired the worm — unspeakably sophisticated inside, outside it was based on one of the most primitive of organisms. Peristaltically humping, stretching out, humping up, stretching out, it came toward them, in and out of light pole glow, a lamp on its near end for the cameras mounted in the rotating eye cluster.
Excerpted from New Taboos by John Shirley. Copyright © 2013 John Shirley. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsA State of Imprisonment,
"Why We Need Forty Years of Hell",
"Pro Is for Professional" Outspoken Interview with John Shirley,
About the Author,