Friday, November 12, 2010

The Hammer and Sickle Tattoo

The Hammer and Sickle Tattoo
by Randy Lowens

When the iron door clanged shut behind me and I stepped into direct
sunlight for the first time in six months, I knew the first place I
was headed was Ace McCray's Hometown Tattoos and Video Parlor. But I
wasn't going to get a tattoo. I was going to have one removed. The
hammer and sickle on my left shoulder blade had to go.

Big city jails have changed over the years. We all griped when they
banned smoking, of course, but other changes were made, too. Like the
cameras that watch you day and night. The automatic lights that go on
at eight AM and off at eleven. Except they never all go off, so a man
lives in a state of perpetual soft glow that blends with the ceaseless
chatter of the card players nearby and the hum of traffic in the
distance. You rest a little, but you never really sleep.

But the Beauregard County clink wasn't like that. It was, and I assume
still is, a pokey of the old school. You never saw such a backwoods
stinkhole in all your life.

Beauregard County is the poorest in all south Alabama, so I reckon
that says a lot. No tax base to pay for cameras and security lights.
Instead, a guard still patrols the hallway—or doesn't, if the sheriff
is gone—and turns the lights on and off whenever he deems it necessary
or convenient.

I liked it at first, early in my sentence. I mean, at night a man
could sleep in total darkness. And it was near abouts to quiet, too,
cause the card sharks couldn't see to play after the sun went down. So
you just lie in the cool of the evening, feeling the breeze from the
fan ripple the sheets against the steel frame, listening to the
birdsong and crickets outside. And the other sounds, too, of course,
the ever present jailhouse sounds: the rhythmic creaking of a man
alone on his bunk, or the moans that escape a pair of lovers. Stifled
sobs. A sudden cry of terror in the morning hour. You always hope it
was only a bad dream, and try to go back to sleep.

Anyway, I was pretty happy for the first month or two of my sentence.
Or as happy as a man in lockdown ever gets. Then the midnight visits


You get to know your cellmates when you serve a sentence. You don't
really want to, but you do. Each stretch starts with the same
attitude: “Just gonna build my time. Stay out of trouble. Stick to
myself, and be out before I know it.” But you get bored. You get
lonely, so you join in an occasional conversation. Besides, there's
nowhere to hide.

The one thing that no jailhouse, urban or rural, offers is privacy.
You take a shower and step out into a room full of men. Some guys love
it; you can tell. They take their time, taking long, slow swipes
across their backs with the towel. Others get out, grab a rag and
throw it around their waists before they're half dry.

A hard attitude, or a reputation for savagery, goes a long way towards
protecting a man in jail. So does striking an imposing figure while
dripping wet. I never minded being middling size, myself. Never wanted
to be a small fellow who invites attack, nor so large as to draw a lot
of admiring or envious stares. I'm happy to blend in the crowd, to do
my time as anonymously as possible. That usually worked pretty good.
At least, until someone recognized the symbol on my shoulder.

Why on earth did I get a hammer and sickle with the inscription Che
Lives! painted on my back? Because I'm a second generation Communist.
My mother was a Maoist in Atlanta during the sixties, a member of the
so-called New Left. (We never knew who my father was, because I was
conceived during an orgy. Or so I'm told. You know, free love, make
love not war, and all that.) So anyway, in my early teens, when I was
on fire for the workers revolt that all our family and friends were
certain lay just around the corner, I got the tattoo.

Of course, said revolt never materialized. Instead came disco music,
the war on drugs, and a long reign of Republican Presidents. There I
was, through it all, stuck with a Stalinist tattoo. I took a lot of
beatings on account of it during the Reagan era before the Soviet
Union collapsed, and for a while afterward when memories of the
specter of The Evil Empire were still fresh. But, over the years, as I
became less political, more addicted, and brown-faced Muslims wearing
turbans became the new enemy, I learned to deflect the attacks.

I would tell people the tattoo was ironic, a joke. Sometimes that
worked. But some old boys didn't think it was funny at all. What
finally worked best of all was the truth, when I admitted that I got
the tattoo as an expression of love for my mother. One thing no
Southern boy will do is talk bad about your mother.

“My Mama was a Communist. But she was a good Mama, and I loved her, so
I got the tattoo. You got a problem with that?”

“Sorry, man. I didn't know.”

Amazing, the allegiance of Southern manhood to the notion of mothering.


My bunkmates in Beauregard County were the usual mix. Jerry was black,
a joker and a coke head who stole a weed eater and hocked it for dope
money. Larry was a red-headed mill worker, a young tough in tennis
shoes, jeans, and tee shirts with one too many drunk driving charges.
Ralph was someone we all left alone: he didn't finish killing his wife
before burying her. Said he was in a Xanax blackout; claims he didn't
remember anything about it. He seemed normal enough around the
breakfast table, but, nevertheless, we all steered clear of him.

Sam, on the other hand, had committed no heinous crimes we knew of. He
was just run-of-the-mill crazy. An old man in overalls who talked to
himself, kept a mumbled monologue running about god-knew-what under
his breath all day long and half the night. Had a mute brother serving
time in the same jail who, by all appearances, was right in the head,
if not especially bright. It was Sam who got to me after a while.

Me and Sam slept in neighboring cells. Each cell contained six bunks,
filled to half capacity during the summer lull, a season when
three-hots-and-a-cot didn't have the same appeal as in wintertime. Not
a bad gig, crashed out in a half-filled jail, if you had to build some
time anyway. But every night around midnight, Sam took to walking over
to the wall of iron that separated us, hanging one wrinkled, hairy
knuckle off the bars like a monkey in the zoo, pointing at me with the
other hand, and moaning. Groaning and howling like a banshee at a
black mass. Of course, as usual, you couldn't understand anything he
said. We laughed at first. But after a while it got eerie. Irritating.
Downright maddening.

Jerry claimed Sam just had the hots for me. But Sam never did anything
sexual. He just pointed a crooked, gnarled finger at me and moaned.
For hours on end, sometimes clear into the dawn.

It was Larry who finally made the connection between Sam's shenanigans
and my tattoo. One afternoon I stepped out of the shower, stood for a
moment, then snatched my towel—not lingering for attention, but not
covering up so quick as to reveal my fear, either—when Sam started
moaning and pointing. When his dumb brother slapped my tattooed
shoulder, silently nodding his head and pointing, Larry crowed, “It's
the damn commie tattoo that ole Samuel don't like.” So that was it.
This was why I was being denied a decent night's sleep: a couple of
half-wit convicts hadn't heard that the Cold War was over.

I was lucky I didn't kill Sam. I tried to. Honest, I did. I'd had two
months of sleepless nights, of being stalked by a psycho, my nemesis
always on the far side of the bars. So when he started pointing and
moaning in the bullpen where the common shower was, with no iron
between us, I went for his throat. I found it and squeezed, harder and
harder as his ugly, puckered face went from pink to crimson to
scarlet, and that's the last I recall until Larry and Jerry pulled me
off him.

“My Mama! My Mama!” was all I could say for the longest time. My
buddies had me pinned to the floor, naked, dripping wet, hands locked
behind my back, and still I yelled, “You two retard sonuvabitches
better NEVER talk about MY Mama again!”

I mean, yeah, I was a Communist once. But I was always a Southern boy
first of all.


Author biography: Randy Lowens is a native of Georgia who now lives
and writes in central Kentucky. He has been published in Fried
Chicken and Coffee, JMWW, and Unlikely Stories 2.0, and has stories
upcoming in Wrong Tree Review and A-Minor. He blogs at