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George Pollock

State Kid
Issue 20
“What are You Doing Here?”

“I've noticed change, good change,” Director Carson said to Billy as the two met
privately in the Director's office. “Now you want something. That is the way you work, is
it not?”
“A library card for the Fairview University library.”
Though the request struck the Director as odd, he said, “I think it could be arranged.”
“Books for the library. It has nothing.”
“I'll look at the budget.”
Billy's informal reading group had evolved into a regular class in remedial reading. The
official teacher, a senior at adjacent Fairview University named David Weatherall, was
happy to let Billy more or less take over the class, though he thought it would be a case of
the blind leading the blind. Until Billy came on the scene, Weatherall had been having the
inmates do “seat work,” under the gaze of an armed guard, while he worked on his
college assignments. Now, with a warm body filling in, he could sit up there and
concentrate better on his own work.
The reason Weatherall was a student at prestigious Fairview University was that his
father had gone to Fairview and so had his father's father, the founder of worldwide
Weatherall Industries. His family, from the old gentry and wealthy mercantile class, had
been among Fairview's founders.
Granite City School was located practically on the campus of the university, with the two
institutions separated only by a football field. No one thought it strange that a selective
Little Ivy university and a prison for hard-core juveniles would be so close to each other.
The physical proximity was convenient for the university. With no travel or hassle,
university students could pick up easy spending money going through the motions of
tutoring the unteachable. Their professors could study this fascinating juvenile
“population,” publish papers on them in the professional journals, give lectures based on
field study, and get tenure and plush fellowships.
“What are you working on?” Billy asked Weatherall one day after the reading session.
“I'm doing a paper.”
“What on?”
“Oh, nothing you'd be interested in.”
Billy looked at the book on his desk. “May I?”
“Sure.”
Billy picked up the book. “Oh, Billy Budd, by Melville.”
“Yes.”
“I've read it, often.” Indeed, his paperback copy had been read literally to pieces; an
elastic held it together. “In some ways, it's the story of my life.”
“What's it about?”
“Is this a surprise quiz?” When he saw from Weatherall's lack of amusement that it was,
Billy said, “Billy Budd is often described as the story of young innocence against adult
evil. It is. And that would be a nice safe approach for your paper. Or you could give them
something more to chew on.”
“And what might that be, professor?”
“Law and Captain Vere as instruments of evil. Vere did his duty to king, country, and
ship; but in doing so, he performed the work of the devil, not Claggart.”
David Weatherall thought: What is going on here? This is an inmate, for God's sake!
But curiosity got the better of him. The next time, he let Billy look at a draft of his paper
on Billy Budd. He watched Billy skim the manuscript and then write copious marginalia.
After reading Billy's notes on points of fact, grammar, spelling, and syntax, Weatherall
said, “What are you doing here?”
“I'm a danger to society. You didn't know?”
Billy said this smiling, almost playfully, but it was clear that the two viewed each other
from across a vast social divide. David Weatherall overflowed with social standing,
economic power, and entitlement. Strip away this bounteous overlay and you get Billy
Stone -- permanent member of the underclass, who could never hope to attain in his
lifetime what had been given to Weatherall at birth.
“You're judging me,” Weatherall said.
“You haven't been judging me?”
“Okay, I'm sorry. I can see that you're ... you're more than I thought.”
“I accept your apology. I liked your paper more than it may seem. We can discuss it some
time, if you would like. I didn't have space to comment on everything. For example, 'like'
and 'as' are not interchangeable and there is a difference between 'apparently' and
'evidently.' Also, although Billy Budd did experience both anguish and agony at various
times, sometimes you had him in agony when he was in anguish and vice versa.”
On his way out, Billy turned and said, “For your information, I am Billy Budd --- but
with two big differences. He was illiterate and I am not. He was a foolish victim and I am
not. Good luck revising your paper. Oh, watch your use of 'only.' Its meaning changes
greatly depending upon its placement in the sentence.”
After Billy had gone, a shaken David Weatherall sat at his desk. Billy's words, silken and
steely, reverberated throughout the room. He reread Billy's notes. Finishing, he stared
unhappily into space. His paper, which he thought was in great shape, actually in final
form, needed more work. This hurt almost as much as the humiliation he had just
endured.
For his part, Billy was kicking himself as he left Weatherall. He had let raw, low-lying
anger show its ugly head. He had been unnecessarily confrontational and hurtful,
stooping even to sarcasm. It was not his usual style and he knew better. Instead of
working him, probing his tender innards, drawing him out and slowly in, and enlisting
him in his service, Billy had created an instant enemy. That he did not need. Billy
resolved to make amends the next time he saw Weatherall.
There were no David Wetheralls among the inmates at Granite City School. There were
only the poor, the unwanted, the mentally deficient, and the culturally outcast -- the chum
thrown out from the Weatherall yacht on glorious summer days as the family sport-fished
on the Sound.
Billy had unfairly taken it out on the privileged Weatherall; he was all that Billy and his
brothers at Granite City School were not. His flight through life had been one of smooth
takeoffs and feathery landings. Billy and his fellow rabble had all crashed at takeoff; and
from there had crawled into society's deepest and blackest holes.
The only family legacies here were abandonment, murder, alcoholism, drugs, cruelty,
dead-end jobs, welfare, prison, early death, ignorance, mental illness and despair. What
Billy had not lived himself, he had heard with his own ears from other young prisoners,
in heart-rending detail.
As he lay sleepless in his cell the night of his encounter with Weatherall, Billy's ungodly,
unrestrained cries echoed through the cellblock. Other inmates lay awake listening as
their leader took upon himself all the sorrows within this bleakest of houses.
Wally Witkowski, the young night guard, whose story Billy had listened to, permitted the
horrible sobbing to go on late into the night, in direct violation of the rules.
***
It was Sunday afternoon, free time. Billy was reading in the library when Wally
Witkowski, whose low seniority stuck him working nights and weekends, came and told
him that he had a visitor.
“A visitor? For me?”
“No, for me.”
“Who is it?”
“You coming or not?”
“I'm coming.”
Since he had been at Granite City -- a period of several weeks now -- Billy had never
once entertained the possibility of a visitor. With Mr. Caulfield gone, he didn't see
anybody out there with visitor potential.
Miss Casey? Not likely. Not with how the Stojak placement had blown up in her face.
Anyway, by reason of incarceration, he was officially off her caseload. For a social
worker, incarceration is worse than having a foster child murdered out from under you. A
dead kid is gone and forgotten. But an incarcerated kid is still kicking around as a living
reminder of professional failure.
Still, he had considered calling Miss Casey with one of the batch of outgoing phone calls
he had been awarded. He decided not to when he could not figure out what the point
would be, other than just making a call to someone, anyone.
Somebody had come to see him. Who?
Maybe it was Stojak, coming to rattle his cage. Maybe it was someone from the police
department with more questions about drug trafficking in the city. For the police, the
cocaine traces found in his pockets overwhelmed everything else in his file, including the
charge of assault. Now that the predator was behind bars, his threat to the community was
viewed as safely contained. Law enforcement's primary interest in Billy now was what he
could tell them about the city's criminal elements.
So far, they had gotten nothing out of him. But as far as the police were concerned, he
was lying and covering up to protect accomplices. This juvenile offender -- “alleged” had
been dropped -- was like all the rest, true to the criminal code. The whole sordid story of
his criminal involvement would have to be pulled out of him, little by little, one way or
another.
Or perhaps the visitor was someone from Juvenile Court with news of new charges; once
they start, they don't end ... or David Weatherall with a question about Billy Budd ... or
that Fairview University shrink, Dr. Allan Kurlan, a specialist in juvenile criminals, who
wanted to use him for a “longitudinal study,” which assumed that he would not be going
anywhere for a long, long time. Or maybe it was his friend Sophie or one of those kindly,
gullible souls from Sadie's funeral who had believed in him and had spoken out in public
on his behalf.
***
The outside world -- he had left it behind so completely that it was as if it never existed,
obliterated from consciousness by the sudden trauma of Granite City School. He had
dropped from the sky into an alien colony full of hostile natives of whom he knew
nothing, except that they are all angry rejects who instinctively prey on the weak. It's a
situation that will block out a former life better than any witness protection program.
Yet, as dangerous and unforgiving as Granite City was, it had for Billy one redeeming
quality: it didn't discriminate; everybody was treated equally bad. With its rules and
regimentation and slave labor and cretinous guards, Granite City was out to crush all.
What could be fairer?
Certainly it was fairer than his foster homes, where he had always been isolated from the
rest of the family. He might start off eating with the family, as he had done at the Stojaks',
but he always ended up eating by himself in the kitchen, sometimes with another foster
child. At Granite City, everybody ate together like one big happy family.
When Billy did happen to be in the same room with the foster family, the conversation
had always taken a deft detour around him, as if he were some kind of blind alley. After a
while, tired of being invisible, he'd just go off in a corner and read a book. All his foster
families had been closed systems, with him outside looking in -- denied access to family
warmth.
Granite City School, however, offered a certain kind of equal opportunity. Director
Carson had no trouble dealing with Billy or any other inmate, if it were in his interest to
do so. As a result, Billy had been able to rise in influence and improve his situation -- and
now even had constituents. It mattered little that his constituents were, like himself, full
of rage, dangerous, emotionally deformed, dispensable, and doomed. They were the
citizenry of Granite City. And, through consummate puppetry, Billy manipulated them for
their sake and his own.
One does not normally think of a juvenile prison as an incubator of self-actualization. Yet
an inmate at Granite City, if he had the ambition, could seize a measure of respect and
influence. This is exactly what Billy had done. Director Carson, whom Billy had
presented with the gifts of gang quiescence and a pile of seized weapons, now viewed
him as a key inmate in maintaining control at the school. Inmates had given him their
highest honor: recognizing him as leader.
At Granite City School, Billy Stone was something that he had never been at any foster
home: somebody.
As Billy approached the visiting area, disarrayed thoughts ran through his mind. Whoever
the visitor was, Billy would be forced to confront unfinished business outside the walls of
Granite City School: the published lies; public opinion against him; police officials
certain of his guilt; and even the law, which along with everything else, had a natural bias
toward keeping him behind bars.
When it came to Billy Stone, the outside world spoke with one voice: He did it; he was in
jail for his crimes; end of story. To get out of Granite City School, Billy would somehow
have to erase thousands of indelible impressions of his guilt and move immovable objects
-- the political and legal system, whose officials were comfortable with the open-and-shut
case of Billy Stone.
Billy had read in the Sentinel that Joy Stojak had been found cowering in the castle's
hidden passage where Billy had left her. She knew the truth. She was the key to his
getting out. Maybe the visitor would be Joy herself, smiling at him, promising to tell all.
They could laugh and cry at what they had gone through together. It would be good to see
her, good to know that she was okay, good to feel a burst of hope for himself and for her.
***
He arrived at the visitor's area. It was a large, cold, fluorescent-flooded room furnished
with red plastic cafeteria chairs and a flimsy fold-up card table. A wall of unbreakable
glass separated inmates from visitors. He entered and approached the glass partition --
and Billy's visitor rose.
“Where is all your hair?” the painted feline-faced visitor said, her lower lip curled
slightly into a tentative smile. Brushing aside shoulder-length raven-black hair, she
looked at him through purple shadow and thick black eyeliner. She wore a tough-looking
cropped black leather jacket with a stand-up collar, low-riding black denim jeans, and
boots with large chrome side buckles.
It was Miss Vamp, from the mall.
Billy remembered her immediately. She had tried to get his attention at the Fairfield Mall.
Who could forget that outlandish vampire outfit of hers? “Black is still your color,” he
said. “My hair? U.S. Marine Corps cut. Makes you obedient.” He looked at Wally
Witkowski standing at the back wall monitoring the visit. “Right, Wally?”
Wally took off his cap revealing the same buzzcut. “Right.”
Just above Wally's head was a big sign that said: NO HUGGING. NO KISSING. NO
PHYSICAL CONTACT. Seeing that the sign had caught Miss Vamp's eye, Billy said,
“People were hugging for ten minutes and passing all kinds of stuff -- guns, knives,
drugs, you name it.”
“Kind of hard to hug through this glass.”
“True. We're working to get back those good old days when inmates and visitors were
allowed in the same room.” Billy turned and looked at the guard. “Right Wally?”
“Right.”
“Just checking to make sure you're listening.” Billy turned back to Miss Vamp. “ He's
supposed to monitor what we say. So don't say anything you don't want the whole world
to know.”
“I'm Vera, Vera O'Toole.”
“I'm Billy, Billy Stone.”
“I know. You're famous.”
“Still?”
“Still.”
Her last name sunk in. “O'Toole. Not ... Not ...”
“Yes.”
“Not...”
“My Dad.”
“Captain O'Toole?”
“Yes. But it's not what you think.”
“Whose side are you on?”
“Both sides.”
Billy got up to leave.
“No, stay, please. I know you're innocent.”
Billy sat back down. His eyes narrowed. He glanced at Wally behind him. He leaned
forward, pressing his mouth up to the little round iron-grilled opening they were speaking
through. He whispered, “How do you know that?”
Vera looked at the second guard watching them from the central control desk near the
front entrance. She whispered, “Joy Stojak.”
“What? Where is she? Is she okay?”
“She's home, but she's scared. She doesn't know what to do.”
“Tell Joy to have courage. Tell her that I will come to her.”
“Do you know where you are?”
“Tell her, please.”
Vera nodded.
“Have you told your father?”
“I wanted to, but...”
“Come on, Billy,” Wally said. “Stop whispering. You want to get me in trouble?”
“Sorry, Wally,”
In a louder, chirpy voice, he said to Vera, “So what else is new with you?”