J. Mark Betrand

J. Mark Bertrand has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. After one hurricane too many, he left Houston and relocated with his wife Laurie to the plains of South Dakota. For more information, visit www.jmarkbertrand.com.

Look Mom, I’m in Jail

When you’re a writer, even incarceration has a silver lining

My wrist was cuffed to one end of the L-shaped bench. On the other end, the prisoner’s hands were free. The other prisoner, I should say. We were both behind bars. Behind glass, anyway, an aquarium-style glass tank in a holding area somewhere at O’Hare airport, where I’d been dragged out of the First Class line after assaulting a ticket agent. We’ll get to that in a minute. For now, I was locked up a cell with a perp who was free to roam. I was innocent, but I assumed he was guilty. After all, the man was in jail.

If he came at me, what was I going to do? The scenarios went through my mind, each one grimmer than the last: There I was, locked to the bench, my free arm flailing, a shank sticking out between my ribs. I’d bleed out on the grimy tile, protesting with my last breath how I didn’t belong here. Or worse, a shank to the jugular and a mute half-minute before death.

The other guy, maybe half my size, was distraught to the point of tears, but when you’re in lock-up for the first time, details like that don’t register.

When I finally realized I wasn’t going to be in a life-or-death battle, when I finally calmed down long enough to notice that on the other side of the glass, a group of middle-aged detectives were watching a golf tournament on television, the surreality set in. Here I was, in the exact situation the word Kafkaesque was invented for. I kept repeating it in my mind. Kafkaesque. Kafkaesque. I almost told one of the detectives, too, when he came to photograph and print me.

“This is Kafkaesque.”

Thinking, of course, he’d realize his mistake and cut me loose. Instead, I kept my mouth shut and they transferred me via armored car to a precinct in town, where a pair of country music–loving corrections officers stuck me in a molded cell that looked like a slightly enlarged airplane bathroom. My crime? When the snotty ticket agent finally handed me my boarding pass, I said “Thanks” and snatched it away. With attitude in my voice. That, according to airport security, was assault and battery.

Our hands never even touched.

Hurt People Hurt People

Ten years later I sent an innocent character to jail. Write what you know, they say, and that’s exactly what I did. When you’re locked up without cause, you keep waiting for someone to say it’s all a joke. The longer they treat it seriously and the longer they act like it’s real, the more frustrated and angry you get. The uniforms that circled me and put on the handcuffs, the detectives who indifferently processed the arrest might have just been doing their jobs. But in my eyes they were cogs in a corrupt bureaucracy that valued procedure more than truth. I tried to capture that feeling in fiction, hopefully with success.

“It’s a good thing you were arrested,” my wife said.

She’d been present at the original ordeal, as had my mother. Even my pastor’s son, who’d been traveling with us, witnessed the whole thing. I was supposed to start teaching a Sunday school class the next week.

The funny thing is, even as it happened, even as I agonized over the injustice and an undeserved shank, I was taking mental notes. Part of me was even excited. I could use this. I was innocent, and my cynical streak doesn’t run so deep that I didn’t believe the whole thing would at some point be cleared up. In the meantime, here was a firsthand journey through the experience of being arrested. I knew I was going to write about this.

Several weeks ago, a friend invited me along on a last-minute social outing, introducing me to an eccentric acquaintance, a guy who’d lived an extraordinary youth that went from European jet-setting to apprenticing in the corridors of Washington DC power. I sat quietly, regaled by one story after another, until he asked the inevitable question: “So, what is it you do?” When he heard I was a writer, he gave me the same look a frontier cameraman suspected of stealing souls might have gotten.

“And he’s going to put all this in a book!” my friend added for extra emphasis.

Come to think of it, I probably will. Being a writer doesn’t make it easier to suffer injustice—or anything else. But there is a silver lining, or at least a nickel-plated one. When bad things happen to you, the time isn’t lost the way it is for other people. Instead, even in the worst circumstances, a little voice tells you this is something you can use. For most of us, the most experience can do is make us better people. For a writer, it makes our stories better, too.

Back On Murder