I am a teacher and I had a class to teach this afternoon. It’s not my class, but I was invited by Billy Never-Never. A name is familiar to people who been around for a while.
Or if you don’t want to do the time, you can read Concrete Mama. A detailed history of Walla Walla in the 1970’s. All of Washington’s most notorious convicts are detailed in it. Billy was once a boy in the story.
He was named Never-Never, because when asked, “When are you going home?” Billy’s answer was “Never-never.” He wanted me to share the Spiderweb today. I won’t say no to Billy. He’s my friend and I have a lot of respect for him. Despite his situation, it’s hard to find somebody who doesn’t like him.
However, the Spiderweb is never easy for me. The days I share it are always emotional, exhausting, and have a lot of unexpected turns.
Today was no exception. As I walk into class, I greet everyone. Checking to see for familiar faces. People I know or have yet to meet. One stands out. I don’t know him. He has a shaved head and tattoos on his neck. A couple indicators this guy had been to every rough spot in the state. He introduces himself as JJ. A name that I can’t pair up with any memory. Usually I am good with this stuff.
We begin the exercise and the Spiderweb strings begin to stretch across the floor in a familiar pattern.
13) Hi my name is Michelle – Today I stole a gun from my dad’s collection. He’ll never know it’s missing.
As the cards progress, I keep sensing JJ. He’s watching me from across the room. I’m beginning to get uneasy.
26) My name is KC – I went to visit my friend in prison today. He doesn’t know but it will be the last time he will ever see me alive. I plan on killing myself on 4/20.
Despite not knowing JJ, he keeps looking at me during the spiderweb as if trying to remember me.
27) My name is Julie Dinsmore – My son KC committed suicide. He never seemed the same after after his friends went to prison. I wonder what kind of flowers I should buy for his funeral?
As we get to the tail end of the cards, I can see him shifting around uncomfortably.
28) My name is Maureen – I was the girl that wore the shirt that smelled like him. They found me in a hotel room. Dead, from an overdose. The same heroin that I thought would help me forget the pain – took me away.
Silence. The students wait for the next person to volunteer their card.
Does JJ know people in the cards?
Maureen? KC? Matt…? He has his mask on, so it makes it that much harder to recognize him. But his non-verbal communication was clearly indicating there was more going on that him just listening to the story.
It hit both of us about the same time. We were friends 20 plus years ago. Me, him and Matt used to hang out on the yard when I first got to closed custody. You needed friends there. Especially if you planned on making it. Closed custody was the place for murderers, robbers, stabbings, riots, drug dealers, gangs and every criminal imaginable all squeezed into a highschool sized area with thirty foot walls. The sort of dangerous place that even discourages documentaries from collecting footage. Closed custody is the closest place to hell on earth.
The bald interloper with tattoos on his neck and hands was Jon Jon. At least that’s what we called him when we were kids. He had long curly hair, and his uncle was Milo in the barber shop. A connection that made it easier for him to do time in closed custody.
Jon Jon had since shaved his head, and started going by JJ. He was now covered in blue ink tattoos from his neck to the tip of his fingers. We were teenagers in the 90’s, he was now an seasoned convict. A lifetime of living to earn that title.
We were still the same people though. Just twenty years down the line. A flood of memories came back to me. Old crimes, old drugs, old friends. One of my coworkers jokingly asked him what kind of things he remembered about me? I knew it would be nothing positive
“Naw, we don’t have to remember that,” I got in quickly before the reality of who I used to be came to light. Probably a good thing if I don’t return there and instead choose to leave those demons where they sleep. Back to what happens next.
The last card in the Spiderweb. Probably the most difficult card for me to hear out loud. It happens everytime I share the spiderweb. It’s always the same, she always dies on the last card.
They found her dead in a hotel room.
Maureen dies from an overdose. My stomach hurts during this part. I don’t let other people see. Instead I ask, “Has anybody lost someone they cared for due to an overdose?”
JJ raises his hand. “My friend Levi, he got out and died a month later.”
I know Levi.
IMU. Shackles, chains. Guys doing programs locked to chairs. We talked in his IMU class. I met him less than a year ago. He had red hair. He held the same string to the spiderweb that JJ was holding now. He said he was getting out soon. He talked about Maureen.
They died for the exact same reason. Except Levi had a chance. He could have learned. He had time to think about his chance. He didn’t think about his chance. I knew Levi, I knew Maureen, and I now know JJ.
Jon Jon was much worse than Levi in the past. I know that from before, probably why he doesn’t go by Jon Jon now. He could easily be in the same shoes or have found the same fate. Does JJ touch the string as a visitor or will he die too?
The whole process is painful for me to think about. It’s also purposeful in it’s design. If everything happens for a reason, maybe I am here for him. I could help him. I could change things for him. He doesn’t have to die. Not like Levi. Not like Maureen.
And outside of myself, possibly that’s not the only conclusion, even though I showed up as a teacher, maybe the lesson’s not for him, it’s for me.