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You Got Nothing Coming

Notes From a Prison Fish

You Got Nothing Coming by Jimmy A. Lerner
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A memoir of astonishing power–the true story of a middle-class, middle-aged man who fell into the Inferno of the American prison system, and what he has to do to survive.

It is your worst nightmare. You wake up in an 8' x 6' concrete-and-steel cell designated "Suicide Watch #3." The cell is real. Jimmy Lerner, formerly a suburban husband and father, and corporate strategic planner and survivor, is about to become a prison "fish," or green new arrival. Taken to a penitentiary in the Nevada desert to begin serving a twelve-year term for voluntary manslaughter, this once nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn ends up sharing a claustrophobic cell with Kansas, a hugely muscled skinhead with a swastika engraved on his neck and a serious set of issues. And if he dares complain, the guards will bluntly tell him, "You got nothing coming."

Bringing us into a world of petty corruption, racial strife, and crank-addicted neo-Nazis, Jimmy Lerner gives us a fish’s progress: a brash, compelling, and darkly comic story peopled with characters who are at various times funny, violent, and surprisingly tender. His rendering of prison language is mesmerizingly vivid and exact, and his search for a way not simply to survive but to craft a new way to live, in the most unpropitious of circumstances, is a tale filled with resilience, dignity, and a profound sense of the absurd. In the book’s climax, we learn just what demonic set of circumstances–a compound of bad luck and worse judgment–led him to the lethal act of self-defense that landed him in a circle of an American hell.

Electrifying, unforgettable, bracingly cynical, and perceptive, You Got Nothing Coming is impossible to put down or shake off. What the cult favorite Oz is to television, this book is to prose–and all of the events are real.

From the Hardcover edition.
Crown/Archetype; Read online
Title: You Got Nothing Coming
Author: Jimmy A. Lerner

I am naked in Suicide Watch Cell No. 3.

The white paper coverall lies on the concrete floor, ripped in so many places I must have shed it like a snakeskin while I slept.

I hope they do not blame me.

There are no windows in my cell, and of course they took my watch, but I can estimate the time by the food trays. Three times a day an unseen hand shoves a plastic tray through a slot in the bottom of the solid steel door.

If it's a handful of Rice Krispies and a dented orange (invariably encrusted with a thick white mold), then it must be breakfast time. Yesterday they gave me a few Cocoa Puffs instead of the Krispies. The chocolate puffs were all embedded in the white mold like sprinkles on a vanilla ice cream cone.

Not yummy, but I love chocolate.

Peanut butter and jelly means it's about noon, and macaroni and cheese must signify Happy Hour here on the nut wing of the Las Vegas county jail. I no longer pound on the cell door whenever I hear footsteps outside.

I think it makes them mad.

At night I can hear screams and wild sobbing from the other cells. Keys jangle whenever the cop approaches my cell door, but he rarely responds to the questions I try to shout out through the door. Like, "What time is it?"

Maybe the cop, wise to the workings of the devious criminal mind, regards this as a trick question.

Go figure.

My paper suit may have been less than fashionable, but it was certainly functional, and, most important, it was mine. When all you have in this world is a half roll of toilet paper and a little piece of gray soap the size of a Chiclet, any property loss is an occasion for mourning.

When the food slot opens for breakfast, I seize the opportunity to announce my nakedness to my unseen captors.

"Guard! Guard!" My mouth is practically pressed against the cold steel door.

"What the fuck do you want? There's no guards here, asshole! I'm a deputy sheriff." The voice behind the door has a weary, practiced contempt to it.

"Sorry, Sheriff, it's just that my paper suit has fallen apart and I would appreciate it if I could possibly get another one." I feel like Oliver Twist pleading for some more soup.

"That's Deputy, asshole. Now step back from the fucking door before I chain your ass to the toilet!"

In a cell measuring eight by six feet, stepping back from the door involves taking one baby step back before banging into the stainless-steel toilet and sink unit. I'm not permitted any books or newspapers, and up until about an hour ago my requests for paper and a pen have been laughed at. This absence of frivolous distractions has afforded me countless opportunities to study the graffiti in the cell with a single-minded focus.

fuck the polease is scrawled in red (blood?) on the wall above the sink. The cinder block next to my steel cot is a mural of misery and enigmatic engravings: lord please let me go to the light is somehow carved into the gray wall. Directly above it is a somewhat less spiritual sentiment: eat a hole you'll suck a pole!

I'm still trying to figure that one out.

There are dozens of crudely drawn swastikas and what I presume to be gang names: trey street deuces and bad bloods and the puzzling nazi low riders. Scratched into the metal cell door above the food slot is smoke a rock you'll suck a cock. I feel fairly confident in concluding the latter admonition is by the same author who was inspired to write about pole-sucking.

The only institutional inscription is stenciled in huge black letters at the top of the sliding steel door: sw3. When I was first taken here shortly after my arrest, shuffling pathetically in my ankle shackles and handcuffs secured to a belly chain, I asked the cop what it meant.

The cop--excuse me, the deputy sheriff--a bored and beefy young man, had apparently been asked this before. He answered by shoving me into the cell before saying, "Suicide Watch 3, asshole, and don't even think of offing yourself during my shift."

Offing myself? That sounded not only preposterous but so, well, late sixtyish. Nevertheless, I was scared shitless.

"There must be some mistake. I'm not suicidal." I suspect the cop had also heard this before.

"Oh, that's right, excuse us--you're fucking homicidal! There's no mistake, dickwad. You were arrested on a Murder One with a deadly weapon. That's a capital crime in this state, so you get to stay in suicide watch with the other killers and J-Cats until you're transferred to the joint. Then you can fucking kill yourself."

"J-Cats?" Curiouser and curiouser--I felt like Alice fallen into the rabbit hole.

"Category J--the fucking crazies. I just love chatting with you, convict, but now get on your fucking knees and face the wall. When I uncuff your left wrist, immediately place your hand on top of your head . . . good . . . now your right hand on top of your head, eyes front and don't get up, don't move until you hear the cell door slam behind you. You think you can remember all that, college boy?"

At the age of forty-seven, with distinguished (or so I imagine) gray streaks on my temples, I am hardly a boy, but I decided this was not the time to object.

"Yes, Officer, but the murder charges were dropped to manslaughter, so why am I still in--"

"Don't Officer me dickbrain, I'm a deputy sheriff, and if you have any more stupid fucking questions, why don't you ask your little nutsack New York lawyer?"

Behind me the steel door hissed and rolled shut--thwunk--a tomb being sealed. I climbed up on the steel bed, which was bolted to the concrete cell wall. Grateful to be unshackled for the first time since my arrest, I stretched out on the steel slab, waiting, wondering if the cop would come back with some kind of mattress or sheets or even a blanket.

Closed my eyes.

And wept like a lost child.

Freddy Shapiro was my lawyer. We had been friends as far back as P.S. 161 in Brooklyn and also shared an apartment in New York when we were both going through our hippie cabdriver phase in the early seventies. Freddy, a small man with a startling facial resemblance to Woody Allen, still clung stubbornly to the Radical Lawyer Look with long gray hair falling in a circle from his mostly bald head.

Three days ago Freddy had sat across a table from me in the jail's tiny conference room reserved for inmates and lawyers. Two cops stood guard outside the door, observing through the glass walls.

Freddy placed a thick legal document on the desk.

"Jimmy, this is the formal plea bargain agreement. Just like we talked about. The D.A. drops the Murder One and you get one to six years for voluntary manslaughter and a consecutive one-to-six sentence for the use of a deadly weapon. Jimmy, you have no criminal jacket, no arrest record. This is a two-to-twelve sentence, and with good behavior, you'll be out in two."

I tried to imagine what two years in prison would be like. Couldn't.

"Freddy, I know we went over this, but with all the evidence you say is in my favor, you still don't think we should go to trial?"

In answer, Shapiro reached into a thick folder and put a dozen large color photographs on the table. Facedown.

"Jimmy, we can still go to trial and you probably have a ninety percent chance of an acquittal. But that's still a ten percent chance of a guilty, which is a death sentence. A lethal injection."

"Freddy, you know how much I hate needles."

"That's pretty funny. But save the gallows humor for a state where they hang you. Listen, my friend, a jury is unpredictable--they can do anything. Do you really want to roll the dice for your life when you have this definite deal in front of you? Two years for sure versus maybe a chance of taking the needle?"

"But the self-defense we talked about, the--"

Freddy flipped over the color photographs.

I had to avert my eyes.

"We go to trial and the district attorney will bring out at least two witnesses who will say you threatened to kill this guy just hours before he died. The D.A. will also show the jury these pictures. Crime scene photos. Of your victim. He will wave them in their faces and under their noses and shout that the evidence, the pictures, don't support an argument of self-defense. Take a close look, Jimmy, just the way the jury will. Take a look at all the blood and look especially at the way the--"

I looked down at the pictures, at all the blood and the rest of it, and felt a fist plunge like a hot knife into my stomach--a sickening stab of fear and disgust.

I had to look away. This was pure horror.

My voice finally emerged in a strangled exhalation of breath.

"All right, Freddy . . . where do I sign?"

The food tray slot snaps open sharply and a clean white paper jumpsuit is shoved through, followed by the usual plastic airline tray containing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and half an apple, the flesh the color of mud. On the other side of the cell door the deputy's voice, dim and muffled, says, "Lerner! Get your convict ass dressed. First thing tomorrow you're rolling it up--you're catching the train."

After Suicide Watch Cell No. 3, this is great news, maybe the best news I have received since my accountant explained I could carry over a capital loss on my taxes for three years. "Catching the train" is the expression here for being transported to prison. Fine with me. Anything has to be better than slowly growing suicidal in a county jail suicide watch cell with no windows and no one even watching.

"Thanks for the suit, Deputy. You think I could get a piece of paper and a pen? I'd like to write my daughters and let them know."

A long pause outside the cell door, then the familiar jangling of the keys. A minute later the slot is opened and four sheets of lined paper and a pencil slide across the concrete floor.

"If you decide to stab yourself to death with the fucking pencil, do me a favor and wait until my shift is over in ten minutes."

I push the food tray toward the toilet and snatch up the precious writing materials. The pencil turns out to be a stub without an eraser, like the ones you get at the golf course.

"Thanks, Deputy. Don't worry, I'm really not suicidal." The food flap shuts tight.

I write the girls a brief note, figuring I can get an envelope and a stamp at the state prison. I have no idea when I'll be able to use a phone again.

The three remaining sheets of paper I start filling up with these words. I have decided that if I am to keep my sanity in the days and perhaps years to come, I will need a personal therapist, even if it's only in the form of this . . . what? Diary? Journal? Maybe it's going to be a really long letter to my kids, to read when they are older, or just some notes to the outside world.

As my teenage girls would say--whatever.

For now I decide to just start addressing these letters to my best friend, Barry Demant, who both suffered and laughed with me during my eighteen years at the phone company. Years where I happily crouched in a cubicle, crunching numbers and coaxing a series of computers into spewing out hopeful marketing and product proposals.

With lots of incomprehensible charts and graphs with arrowed vectors and critical milestones overlapped by three-dimensional bubbles representing microsegmented target markets.

I miss my job, Barry.

I miss my little girls.

A violent pounding on the cell door. The nerve-jangling steel snap of the food slot, and another plastic airline tray hurtles across the concrete, collides with the far wall, releasing a spray of Rice Krispies. The fuzzy white orange rolls like a tennis ball under the toilet.

"Ten minutes for chow, convict, then roll it the fuck up! Train's coming for all you fish!" The deputy's voice recedes down the corridor, then repeats the instructions to another reluctant guest in another cell. I'm so hungry I collect every errant bit of cereal from the floor and wolf it down with the help of a handful of suspiciously cloudy cold water from the rusted sink. I manage to wipe most of the white sludge from the orange onto my paper pants leg before peeling it. Devour the distinctly unjuicy fruit, seeds and all, in three bites.

Not yummy.

The cell door slides open and the same beefy young deputy flings a bright orange coverall against my chest.

"Lerner! Get the fuck out of your J-Cat costume! A new fish like you is gonna get eaten in the joint anyway--no need to advertise you been locked down with the nutcases." At that moment I had no idea what a huge favor the cop was doing for me. A fish with a "J-Cat jacket" in the joint does not inspire much respect on the yard.

I'm out of the paper J-Cat suit and into the orange jumpsuit in seconds. property of the las vegas county jail is inscribed in black letters on the back. Like somebody would actually want to steal one of these things?

The deputy stands at the cell door, smoking an unfiltered cigarette, watching me dress. I haven't had a cigarette since being taken into custody, and I suddenly want one more than anything, except maybe some bacon and eggs and an English muffin dripping warm with butter. I have always suspected that high cholesterol is one of those made-up medical scares designed to keep us from life's small pleasures.

"Deputy, can I have a cigarette?" With the enhanced status conferred by the cloth jumpsuit, I can feel the old confidence surging through me. The deputy, who looks like he started shaving this morning, removes a Camel from the pack, hands it to me.

"Sure, why not? By tonight in the joint, you'll probably be married to the convict with the most cigarettes."

"Thanks, Deputy, but I hope to remain celibate in prison." This witticism provokes a puzzled scowl from the cop as he nevertheless lights my cigarette.

"Celebrate? Ha! A skinny fish like you, never been down, never even been arrested before, fuck!--the cons in the joint will be celebrating around your asshole. Now roll it up!"

From the Hardcover edition.

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