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George Pollock

State Kid
Issue 18
On the Knife's Edge

The next morning, Billy walked into the dining hall alone with the Sentinel tucked under
his arm -- and thereby sent out a sizzling-hot news bulletin: I've done deals. Don't mess
with me.
The news came fresh upon whispers that the new guy had stood up to Angel Santiago the
first night and shut out Kali Muhammad the second night, and even had some sort of deal
going on with Granite Face himself, Director Carson. What's more, the talk was that this
new Stone guy had no fear and “spits on death.”
Emerging from the chow line with his tray of food, Billy had to make a quick -- and
important-- decision: Where would he sit? He walked by the white table. “Good morning,
Durk. How are you doing?” Durk watched him intently, but said nothing. “See you guys
around,” Billy said.
He was at the Hispanic table. “Good morning, everybody,.” he said, expression
indecipherably blank. “Hi, Angel. Good to see you.” Angel looked away. At the Black
Knight tables, he gave Kali a little wiggle-fingered wave. “Missed you last night, Kali.”
He drew a murderous stare.
He continued on to the farthest corner of the dining hall where he sat down by himself.
He shook open the Sentinel, which he leafed through while munching on toast, as if he
were a commuter catching a quick bite and a look at the morning headlines before
heading for the office.
News bulletins flashed:
I'm free-lancing it... nobody owns me... not Angel, not Kali, not Durk ... nobody.
It was an unheard of. His unfettered entrance into the dining hall, his conspicuous
withholding of respect from Kali, Durk, and Angel; his sitting alone during breakfast,
were direct challenges to inmate leadership that could not go unanswered.
No one expected Billy Stone to last out the day.
As Billy set out on his first day of regular activities, what lay ahead was unknown, except
that he was sure of this: in a flash, the knife would come at him and he would be “cut
meat” making a holy mess on the floor. And, after they cut him, they would step over him
joking, laughing, and enjoying his hilarious death gurgle. Where, when or from what
direction the knife would come, Billy did not know; he just knew it was coming.
After breakfast, guards herded inmates out of the dining hall and Billy found himself
swept up into the middle of a tightly packed, jostling mass of inmate bodies. In the
corridors, on his way to drug-abuse group, he twisted and twirled so as to offer an
assassin no more than a fleeting chance at an unprotected back.
Under close control by guards, inmates peeled off into rooms as their names were called
and checked off. They went for anger management, behavior mod, remedial reading, life
skills; some for cleaning chores and other work projects. Students did all cleaning and
routine maintenance at the school. They prepared meals under the supervision of the staff,
swabbed and buffed floors, scrubbed pots and pans in the kitchen, took care of the
grounds, and did their own laundry.
Days were busy and tightly regimented. Director Carson had issued no-nonsense
directives to the staff, branding idleness as a deadly enemy because it led directly to
“enemy number one:” lack of discipline.
When Billy reached the drug-abuse-group room, he hung back. Once inside, he would be
trapped. He let others go in ahead of him. Then Charlie Heyman, the staff member in
charge of the class, arrived. He was in his early thirties, tall, and had thinning reddish
hair; he wore dark-rimmed glasses and a white shirt and tie. He said,“You must be Billy
Stone. I'm Charlie Heyman. Come in.”
“Sure,” Billy said, “but do you think we could collect the weapons?”
“Yeah, half the guys here are packing.”
“Just come in and sit,.” Heyman said, sweeping Billy in with a firm arm.
As other inmates took seats, Billy remained standing. “Quick spot check?” he said. “No
blades, I apologize and sit right down.”
Heyman frowned.
Billy went over to Kali and said, “He's packing.”
“Sit down.”
Billy stood his ground. “He's packing.”
Heyman motioned for a guard. The guard stood Kali up and patted him down. Taped to
Kali's leg, he found a hand-fashioned “shiv.” which he held up. Then the guards frisked
the whole class, retrieving many more homemade weapons, including a blade from Durk
Coogan. Billy fetched a cardboard box from a corner and held it as intently-frisking,
preoccupied guards put the weapons in. One inmate had a double-braid of sheet with a
combination lock tied to the end; swung like a medieval mace, it could shatter a skull.
Another had a toothbrush with an attached razor blade. Still another had a comb without
teeth which had been filed down into a sharp, needle-like dagger.
“Regular arsenal,” Billy said, handing the box over. “Is this a school or an armory?”
Heyman called for guard reinforcements to restore control and take names. When the
extra guards arrived, a shaken Heyman announced, “Director Carson will receive a full
report about this and you all know what will happen. Stone, you've made your point. Sit
“Sure, but I don't need this class. I don't do drugs.”
Heyman rolled his eyes. Who is this guy?
“They planted stuff on me. How many of you guys were stashed?”
Inmates looked around. A hand went up. A second hand went up, then a third, then a few
more. Soon eight or nine hands were in the air. Billy said, “See, these guys aren't even
druggies. They were set up.”
“Enough, Stone.”
“Easy to find out. Give me a urine test.”
“Sit down and be quiet, Stone.”
Billy sat.
Heyman, determined to regain control of the class, plunged ahead. Frequently reading
from a text, he discussed drug addiction and why it is so hard to break. On the blackboard
were listed steps in the seven-step program the group was following, beginning with
Accepting the Problem and ending with Staying Clean. Different students were on
different steps in the program.
Repeatedly inviting inmates to discuss their progress, Heyman was talking to himself.
The noise, confusion, and bubbling emotions of the weapons' search had quickly
subsided, returning the class to its former state -- supreme apathy.
Lounging in a big semi-circle, silent, eyes glazed over, inmates settled back to wait out
the class. Some propped up their heads as if to keep them from falling off their shoulders.
Some slumped in their seats, napping, including a couple of inmates whose concealed
weapons had just been seized.
It was like that here, from one extreme to another in nanoseconds.
Billy listened, the only one doing so. He raised his hand.
“Yes, Stone.”
“What if no more drugs came into the school? Wouldn't that solve the problem? Wouldn't
we all automatically get bumped up to 'Staying Clean?'”
“We're talking about the future. There are no drugs on school premises.”
Inmates shot furtive looks at one another. Titters went through the class. The sleepers
woke up. Inmates tried to control themselves, but the class broke down in gales of
laughter. Billy joined in. Even some of the guards smiled. Heyman looked like somebody
had just pulled his pants down to his ankles.
“Mind if I go to the bathroom?” Billy asked.
Befuddled, Heyman nodded. Billy left and returned a few minutes later with a little paper
cup, which he placed on Heyman's desk. “For my drug test. It's genuine. I had it
witnessed by the guard.”
Staring at the urine sample, Heyman said, “Officer. He's an officer.”
“Excuse me, officer.”
“I gotta go,” said an inmate.
“Me, too,” said another.
“Man, I gotta go so bad my eyes got to be yella,” said yet another.
“Go,” said Heyman. “Everybody go. We won't do any more today. And forget the urine
He signaled guards to take the inmates to chores. That was the price for disrupting class.
More severe punishment for having concealed weapons would quickly follow, personally
meted out by Director Carson. The Director believed that violations of school rules
should have swift consequences. “If they don't like drug-abuse group or behavior-mod,”
he had instructed guards, “let them clean toilets. If they do worse, they get worse. It's up
to them. They'll learn -- or, if they don't, they pay.”
In the corridor, Billy went up to Kali. “Sorry about back there. I just wanted to show you
that ....”
“You're dead meat,.” Kali said.
“Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean ...”
“Too late, man -- you're done. I gotta work now because of you. You're done, baby.”
“Kali, they want us to fight each other. Don't you see? That's how they control us.”
Kali glared.
“Kali, I'm getting out of here. I can take you with me.”
“Shut up, boy!”
“So we have a deal.”
“Shut up, I said.”
“I have a gift for you,” Billy said. Looking around, Billy reached into his shirt, took out a
shiv and pressed it into Kali's hand.
“My blade!”
“Shhhhh! For my new partner.”
“How ...”
“Confusion and stupidity present opportunity.”
“Say what?”
“Fast hands. By the way, I got a blade for me.” He patted his shirt, revealing a bulge.
“This is the thing, Kali. We slice each other up like a couple of stupid goons -- or we deal.
Think, Kali, think.”
Kali loosed a furious stream of obscenities.
“Good thinking, Kali. They like that..” Billy drew close and, enunciating each word, said,
“It tells them they own you, baby.” He put special emphasis on “baby.”
At the evening meal, Kali and Billy walked into the dining hall side by side. They sat
together at the Black Knight table. Everybody in the dining hall knew they had done a
deal -- and, because of “the new guy's fast hands,” they knew both were packing. Not
only that, the new guy strolled over to the white table, where he spoke quietly with Durk
Coogan. From there, he went to the Hispanic table where he huddled with Angel
Then, pleasantries exchanged, he took his place alone in the far corner. From his corner
office in the dining hall, a new power surveyed the Granite City jungle. His rise had been
swift and unprecedented, but far from decisive. In this place, the struggle for dominance
is never-ending. In this pit of intrigue, betrayal, and violence, a bloodless transfer of
power is unknown.
Losers get beaten to a pulp and sometimes killed. Victors jump up and down on the
broken bodies of the vanquished. At the moment, Billy Stone was neither. But at Granite
City School, there is no such thing as neither; you win or you lose. In two days, Billy
Stone had accomplished much. He had reached for power -- and was still vertical and