THE EYES OF IGNORANCE
by G. WILFORD HATHORN
Today I looked into ignorant eyes, not the first time, not the last.
This new prison to which we were moved is in a county next to that in which
I grew up, so, since prisons are a major source of employment these
days, it follows that I would have some homeboys and homegirls working
here. Sure enough, last night I was awakened by a guard shining a flashlight
in my face, and as I squinted to see who he was, he said, “What’s your
I thought to myself, damn, isn’t he supposed to know this given that
I’m listed on a roster somewhere?
“Hathorn,” I responded, voice croaking with sleep.
“You from Trinity County?” he asked.
“Yeah, I am,” I said.
He nodded, turned off the flashlight, and left. But not before I saw
it. The undercurrent of revulsion. Indignance that I am alive. I don’t
even know this kid, who looked to be in his early twenties, yet he, pursuant
to the “word”, the gossip refined for the last 15 years, has deemed me
a specimen under the microscope of the macabre. Not to be understood, but
viewed as a sideshow attraction. He doesn’t care if I live, in fact wants
me to die, because somewhere along the line he heard that Hathorn did a
It is axiomatic that everyone does bad things in their lives, yet only
when one’s actions land him in prison is he viewed as incorrigible, a blight
on society to be painted with the dye of disdain. People steal things in
their youth, smoke pot, get drunk and wreck their cars, perhaps even shoot
at someone, but so long as they clean up their act before going to prison
they are forgiven and allowed to peacefully coexist with their brethren.
They may even be accepted into a church and after years of singing hymns
and maintaining a pious bearing be elected elder or deacon. Everyone, after
all, makes mistakes and should be lent a helping hand.
But not if he’s gone to prison, especially death row. Now it’s a different
story. Gone is the “Everybody errs and should be given a second chance”
mentality. In its place is the “Oh boy, somebody we can kick when he’s
down” attitude. “Yeah, he made a mistake, all right!” people say. “I don’t
care if it was his first conviction. His ass should be killed! He should
have thought about that forgiveness shit before he did what he did!” Of
course, a wrong must be committed before forgiveness can be given, correct?
Absent wrongs there would be no need for forgiveness, but God says we must
give it, so apparently He realizes that people will stray from the path
of rightness. Or if one doesn’t believe in God, then our innate humanity
commands forgiveness, for if we cannot forgive there is no growth at the
soul level and, like a tombstone, we remain rigid and immovable.
Tonight another guard walked to the cell door. “Well how ya doin’,
Mr. Hathorn?” he said, his eyes cobalt augers, voice leaking sarcasm. I
put down my book and stepped over to see who had called me. He was another
young fellow and I recognized the name on his nametag; in my younger days
I drank many a beer with his cousins and uncles. I said, “Aw, hey! Are
you D.’s boy?”
He looked as if I were a five-gallon bucket of puke, distressed that
I addressed him with such familiarity. Condescension was the pillar that
held his gaze firm as he bled hatred in my direction. “No, my daddy’s F.,”
he said, as if I hadn’t a right to ask.
“Did you go to school at C.,” I asked, C. being the high school from
which I graduated.
“Yeah”, he retorted. “I was a couple years behind M.” The hatred intensified,
and I understood why: M. was a victim of my crime.
“I just wanted to stop by and put a face with the name,” he continued.
He held a slice of pizza. He took a bite, chewed it, blew fumes in my face,
swallowed it, and said as he walked off, “Well, later on.”
Ignorance. Here was another young man to whom I’ve done nothing, had
not even known existed until tonight, and he stopped by to put a face to
a name. To let me know he is a guard and I an inmate, and that his control
over me is absolute. Like the other fellow, he knows nothing of me but
what he’s heard, but based on that, without ever sharing a beer with me
as did his relatives, he passes judgment and sentences me to die.
In speaking on crime and punishment, Kahlil Gibran said, “It is when
your spirit goes wandering upon the wind, that you, alone and unguarded,
commit a wrong unto others and therefore unto yourself. And for that wrong
committed must you wait a while unheeded at the gate of the blessed ...
Oftentimes have I heard you speak of one who commits a wrong as though
he were not one of you, but a stranger unto you and an intruder upon your
world. But I say that even as the holy and righteous cannot rise beyond
the highest which is in each of you, so the wicked and the weak cannot
fall lower than the lowest which is in you also. And as a single leaf turns
not yellow but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree, so the wrongdoer
cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all.”
Were the roles reversed and I to approach this lad as he awaited the
grip of the talon, especially if he were from my vicinity and had socialized
with my relatives, I would not view him with the jaded eye of rebuke, nor
would I transmit silent wishes that he die on society’s altar. I would
not express, implicitly or otherwise, glee at his misfortune, rather, would
offer a supportive word and convey my willingness to listen, for to have
committed a terrible wrong he had to have been troubled by something beyond
the range of the casual eye, perhaps a hopelessness that we, his village,
could not feel. Our society, surfeited on materialism, has become indifferent
to the causes behind actions performed because of a void in the perpetrator’s
soul. For the mob, no explanation suffices. We simply want blood and are
willing to overlook tragedies that occurred under our noses, tragedies
that may have led someone to kill, and hope we are never asked to recall
the past; we did not speak up then and avert disaster, therefore we don’t
wish to now, for if we remain quiet the matter will go away.
Except that somewhere a clock is ticking.
Ticking against the man on death row, but also against those whose
venom maligns him, for the justice of Fate is true and no one escapes the
barb it sinks into the spirit’s flesh. The moon washes the night in soft
whiteness and looks demurely on as the meanspirited plot deceptions, but
the sun eventually breaks the barrier and scorches the proud on their stalks.
At that hour the haughty will weep alongside the lowly and the latter will
ascend higher than the former. Though the proud, who trampled the spirit
of the defenseless, shake their fist and demand their “rightful” place
at the Table of Completion and receive it not, the humble, recognizing
their sin and via understanding atoning therefor, ask quietly for an act
of grace—the mercy forbade them by their brethren—and are blessed. Little
is known of the human heart save for these two things: It’s capacity for
love and its capacity for hate. Of these polarities love wins in the end,
but oh the pain, resentment, and death wrought by hate in the meantime!
To love for the sake of life is assuredly the highest road, but too frequently
we, in the context of our pain—or, as Gibran points out, “alone and unguarded”—step
boldly onto the lower road and ensure that the object of our displeasure
“remains unheeded at the gate of the blessed”, for we have remained thus
neglected and wish others to share the weight of our misery.
Another officer, a female, came by in the morning hours passing out
jumpsuits, underwear, and socks. Shortly she was joined by a male and together
they went about the drudgery of sorting clothes, then shoving them through
the bean slots. I accepted mine and, covering three steps, meandered to
the back of the cell, pondering a mystery I’ve tried since my teenage years
to solve, and my neighbor pounded on the wall, saying, “Did you hear what
that bitch just said?” Whatever it was, it had pissed him off.
“No, I didn’t,” I responded as the intercom speaker outside the cell
beeped like the ping of a submarine, something it does every ten seconds
while on. My neighbor huffed and puffed before continuing.
“She said they should just go ahead and kill all of us!” he carped.
“That way they wouldn’t have to pass out the damned clothes! Somebody ought
to put a foot in that hateful bitch’s ass!”
The officer was nearby and went about sorting the clothes, stoically
ignoring my friend’s opinion about where on her person a foot should be
planted. For the first time I noticed the wan, depleted look of her face.
Her oily reddish hair was in a ponytail, and her rust brown eyes bulged
behind thick lenses. She shot a glance my way and her demeanor for that
second of eye contact was defiance. Then she took a couple of steps and
I noticed that she walked with a limp, and beneath the material of her
gray pants with the blue stripe down the legs I saw the outline of a brace
encircling her calf. I looked on, curious about why one with her potential
beauty—a good hair-washing, a skosh of makeup, and a smile would do wonders,
but the greatest gift she could receive would be a healthy dose of self-esteem—would
waste precious energy wishing death on people she doesn’t even know. A
picture formed in my mind.
When I was young I knew a man who had a dog named Spotty, a mongrel
with longish white fur dappled here and there with brown and black splotches,
and Spotty was the friendliest, most playful dog I’d ever seen. Produce
a rubber ball, bounce it a couple of times in front of Spotty, and you
had a dervish of tail-chasing and slobber-slinging with which to contend,
and he wouldn’t rest until the ball had been thrown and retrieved 40 or
50 times, thereby tuckering him out. Then he and I would lie by a shade
tree and, while butterflies bopped about inches above the ground and the
scent of honeysuckle and mimosa danced through our noses, watch each other
pant. When we’d rested Spotty would return to his master and I to the wasteland
of home, though at every opportunity we would rendezvous again.
Spotty’s master, a fellow named Josh Adams who was a mechanic and always
had grease under the fingernails of hands that bore the scars of many a
stripped nut, treated me fair enough, for I was young and my father an
occasional customer. Josh would look at me with runny, bloodshot eyes and
say through a cloud of tobacco odor, “Now Geno, tell yer daddy I’m runnin’
a special on oil changes this week, so if he wants one for that ol’ Dodge
of his he should give me a holler on the tellyphone.”
“I’ll sure tell him,” I’d say, embarrassed to be spoken to about a
matter of such importance.
But Josh wasn’t friendly toward Spotty. Seems the dog, according to
Josh, was always in the wrong place at the wrong time, underfoot while
Josh was changing spark plugs or sniffing Josh’s crotch while he was under
a car wrestling a transmission. It was customary for Josh to cuss at Spotty
3 or 4 times a day, making the chastened animal dip his head and roll his
eyes as if to say, “What did I do? I was only trying to play!” But the
cussings were not all. Sometimes Josh, usually when he was half-lit on
the Falstaff beer he chugged while working, would go smooth off and hurl
a ball peen hammer or socket wrench at Spotty, connecting sometime, causing
the dog to yelp and hide under the ramshackle front porch of Josh’s house
for several hours, to be seen again only when Josh’s squabbling with his
obese wife could be heard above the game shows.
One day Josh, furious at something Spotty had done—more likely something
he himself had done, but Spotty was getting the blame—tied him with a piece
of wire to a stake in the ground, and proceeded to call down thunder and
lightning by beating him with a length of water hose. It wasn’t just a
beating, but a torture session, as it lasted a good hour, with Josh, frequently
winded, taking breaks and cussing while walking circles around the terrified
dog. Spotty’s pitiful cries were heard throughout the neighborhood. No
one said anything, however, for if a man wanted to peel the hide off his
dog in front of God and everybody that was his business. Sort of like when
a man wanted to punish his kids the same way.
When it was over Josh had persuaded Spotty, bleeding from the mouth—for
he had bitten his tongue several times—and nose, to “sit up purty” while
Josh, eyes gimlet shot-glasses, stood by and dragged the hose across Spotty’s
neck; the depravity seemed sensual, Josh enjoyed it so much. Spotty sat
as he’d been commanded, for the wire and stake ensured that he had no other
choice, and, when Josh spoke in his “good boy” tone, lowered his head and
looked at the ground. Looking at Josh may have invited another lashing.
The way Spotty looked that day was how the officer with the limp looked
this morning, as if she had taken all the hurt the world could throw at
her and could do nothing about it. Somewhere in the past she, maybe for
a long, excruciating time, was tied to a stake of her own and somehow beaten
into submission. She had cast her crumbs upon the tides and they
had come back moldy and rank, and her existence was a crash course in heartache.
The sound she heard on the horizon was the approach of yet another storm.
In us she sees the Josh or Joshes who brought havoc to her life, shattered
it, and now, passing out jumpsuits, underwear, and socks in the hours preceding
a dawn that may shed light on her secrets, she wishes us dead.
When she walked by and glanced at me again, I could not be angry. Across
the distance separating the past from the present I heard the sounds of
a dog being whipped with a hose, and felt inside a surge of sympathy. I
smiled at the officer who wants us dead, trying to communicate my comprehension
of her ordeals, and she hesitated a moment, for sympathetic overtures are
something to which she is not accustomed.
She moved along, telling her colleague that she thought I was masturbating
as I watched from behind my door.