Lit match

Something whizzed by my head and on beyond as I sat on the floor holding onto the pale green bars of my cell. I twisted my neck quick enough to see a flaming wooden match had landed behind me, just in front of the aluminum toilet.

I looked across the small cell block, which supposedly had briefly housed a famous group called the San Quentin Six a few years ago—or so the others had said. Kessler was facing me, but was kneeling on one knee, his head down as he concentrated on something he was doing. I stood up in order to see. As it all came into view, I felt a chill. Kessler, his tall, wiry body poised adroitly in his orange prison jumpsuit, was using some kind of charcoal—more match heads, for all I knew—to draw a large, circumscribed pentagram on the floor in the centre of his cell.

“Kessler, did you throw that match?” I asked.

He tilted his head up until his eyes, looking straight ahead, met mine. Dark shadows seemed to emanate from deep inside them. I felt another chill at this echo of old Teutonic magic being practiced directly across the hallway, seemingly directed against me.

“I’m going to break you!” Kessler announced in a voice redolent of an emotion I reluctantly recognized as hatred.

I felt afraid, but also curious. Could he really do it? Was there anything to the pentagram? I’d heard of such things since the ’60s, but had never seen them practiced before. Part of me—a large part—wanted to be broken. I mean, wasn’t that what life was doing anyways, especially these last weeks in City Prison, after I’d kicked the cop?

Being broken: wasn’t that what I’d signed up for these last ten years, since I’d first felt Meher Baba’s love emanating from his picture, and realized all are One? Various names were used: discipleship, “elimination of the ego,” etcetera. But didn’t it all amount to being broken?

My rash kick to the policeman’s knee came in the throes of frustrated romantic feelings I’d failed to acknowledge in myself until it was too late. It had abruptly ended the enchanted life I’d lived in San Francisco’s Chinatown for the past six months, almost since my return from my first pilgrimage to Meher Baba’s Tomb in India. Since then I’d felt someone had been breaking me—killing me—with a rusty knife, and had left the knife in me. I lived like an open wound, longing for someone to finish the job. It might as well be Kessler.

“Vermin like you don’t deserve to live!” Kessler’s words curdled as they came from his mouth, set in its angry sneer. “When you least expect it, starting at noon tomorrow, there will be matches whizzing by your head, landing in your clothes. I’ll scream at you, harass you until you beg for mercy. I won’t leave you alone!”

“Have you done this to anyone before?” I asked, a bit frightened now.

“In Vietnam,” he said, “to gooks.” He made it sound as if “gooks” were not people. But then, maybe he didn’t believe I was a person, either.

I thought back to my first days in the cell block. After recovering somewhat from the initial shock of my incarceration—I’d been similarly shocked some years before to find myself in a mental hospital—I began to think that maybe I could take Meher Baba with me, even here. Had he not said, “Take me with you,” meaning wherever one went? Life went on in prison. Life went on in state hospitals. Life went on, on the far side of whatever was unimaginable, even after death, according to Baba, until one became the Life Eternal that was all that truly existed.

I had tried to tell the guys on this block about Baba: Kessler, and lethargic Davey, with his “white Afro” in the cell next to him, and Ray in his orange jump suit, a professional football player of some kind, in the cell down by the block entrance, next to the vacant one alongside Jimmy’s.

I don’t remember how the moment came when I was able to bring up Baba naturally. Maybe it was Jimmy, complaining once more about the fact that there were no TVs in the cells here, and no cheese puffs and chips, all of which he apparently had access to during some previous incarceration somewhere.

I’d seized an opportunity to try to inspire my fellow prisoners. I’d read about a soldier in the Indian army during India’s war with China in 1962. Deep in enemy territory, he had inspired his comrades to great bravery by telling them about Meher Baba, the God-Man. Afterwards, the whole platoon had been inspired to call on Baba with all their hearts, and they had safely made their way through enemy territory and back to India, against enormous odds.

I’d said, “There was a man named Meher Baba who lived a life like Buddha or Christ in India recently and did spiritual work that will change everything on Earth. He said his work would raise human consciousness from reason to intuition. His life was absolutely selfless. He worked with the poor, the mentally ill… once while visiting America, he had himself driven to the gates of Sing-Sing, to make inner contact with an inmate.”

Jimmy and Ray had tried to shout me down, but Kessler, the natural leader of the group, had shushed them. “Listen to him!” Kessler had admonished. “He’s saying something important!”

How had things degenerated? In the end, I hadn’t been able to stay bravely in my heart like the Indian soldier. The noise of the whole prison, which could be heard in our block, the 24-hour lights, the endless chatter of the guys near me, who were like boys who’d never outgrown their games of cops and robbers—all of it had just been too much. I remained a middle-class, Jewish suburban mama’s boy. By now I was surely clinically depressed. I longed for Kessler to carry out his plan. Anything that would deliver me from the chaos that now reigned in my mind.

And so I continued to wait. When noon, or approximately noon, came the next day, my expectancy rose. But nothing happened. Nothing happened that night, or the next day. The day after that, I got up my nerve and spoke to Kessler again.

“What happened?” I demanded. It was obvious that he wasn’t carrying out the avowed program.

“I decided you weren’t worth it,” he replied curtly, the ultimate snub. I wasn’t even worth breaking.

Things happened very quickly after that. Only a day or so later, the guards came to take Kessler away. He had been pursuing some kind of appeal, using a set of law books that he had on a shelf against the wall of his cell. The verdict was in. He had lost.

“Pack your things and be ready in half an hour,” the guard warned, and soon, on schedule, they were back.

“You can’t do this!” he protested. But they could. And they did, and he was gone.

The next day word came that I, too, was leaving. Lindstrom, the big-bodied, green-uniformed guard who seemed to detest me more than he detested the bank robbers and murderers, came to tell me I needed to be ready now in thirty minutes. I was being sent to Napa State Hospital for observation.

Jimmy and Ray didn’t even say goodbye. Tom, a shy, bearded, fellow who had joined us recently, having apparently been charged with arson after a fire at his rooming house, and whom I’d tried to stand up for when the others had taunted him about being gay, looked my way and nodded.

My ordeal was far from over. I was not “broken.” “Baba,” I asked inwardly of the one I continued trying to at least make my constant companion, “When will it all end?”

But as usual, nowadays, I heard no reply.

Read the longer story by the same author that was inspired by this piece»

image: Charly Morlock (Creative Commons BY-SA)