THE PAINTING HOUSE (A prison memory)
"Your bedroom ain't the same if a snake crawls in. One minute safe; next minute not."
The old inmate leaned forward on his bunk and scared the living shit out of me.
He swung his huge face toward me like a weapon, with a half-lid eye and let his lower jaw jut forward.
But-It was his voice--cracked and booming--like a bell down in hell that startled me.
I was a fool for asking. You never ever ask. But I didn't know. I was about to find out why. You never ask a man in prison why he's in there. For god's sake; he just might answer you.
"When Grampa Carl come in. We kids froze. Little rabbits we was. Who was he gonna pick? We shiver and don't never look up. Cuz, one thing for damn sure, one of us he gonna take to the Painting House."
"What's a Painting House?"
The inmate sniffed the air like a bloodhound onto the scent.
I could see awful memories flood in--it was on his face. Nothing was as ugly as that thing crawling into his head.
"When Grampa Carl take you into the Painting House--when you come out--you be painted red with blood and you be painted blue with welts and bruises. And you never gonna be right no more."
The story this man told me I've never spoken aloud . I wouldn't be telling it now except--I just woke up a little before 2 a.m. with it staring me in the face with a half-lid eye. A bad dream? Sure. Why now? Don't know.
If I tell--it might go away.
His name was Hoetzler ("hurt slur") I've forgotten his first name.
I wish I could forget what he told me--I thought I did forget.
I guess not.
Hoetzler felt "odd" as a kid. Something was different inside him from other kids--he was sure. He had five brothers, reared on a farm, worked like a mule as most kids were back then. The older he got the meaner he grew, and soon he was stealing apples, setting fires, and getting into fights.
By age 11, he ended up in Juvenile Court on a drunk and disorderly charge. His parents refused to vouch for him before the judge.
He was sent to Minnesota State Training School where he met "Grampa Carl" and found out about the Painting House.
While he was there, he was repeatedly beaten, tortured, and raped by a frightening son-of-a-bitch named "Grampa Carl" a demonic fella in charge of the youngest kids in reform school. Grampa had been a coach before State Training School. He found a better opportunity working with troubled kids, to teach them the lesson of life he lived by: "Trouble brings trouble."
Hoetzler hated that shed where the sporting equipment was kept, the Painting House, so much he told me he had set fire to it and got away with it. The other kids knew he'd done it--but they'd never tell.
When his stint in the Minnesota State Training School ended he was sent back home to the farm where he stole money from his mother and was beaten by his dad. He ran away and hopped freight trains to escape and ended up in one hobo camp after another when he was abused.
When he was old enough, he enlisted in the Army. He lied about who he was and where he was from and a kindly recruiting sergeant filled out the necessary papers for him.
It didn't take long before he ended up in Fort Leavenworth's Disciplinary Barracks. With a dishonorable discharge he set off on a career stealing bicycles, cars and even yachts. From bad to worse, leaving a trail of misery and wreckage in his wake, Hoetzler never seemed to find a way to stay out of trouble.
The man rattled off a list of prisons he'd been in I couldn't possibly remember now. I was impressed.
After his last crime spree, he found himself holed up in a mission on the border of Texas where a priest taught him how to paint.
"Father Antonio calmed my anger. It was the afternoons--in the rectory with two easels and a palette of colored paints. He's the only man who ever cared about me."
Inmate Hoetzler had left the mission and Father Antonio behind and set off to find his way back home after all those years on the road. But stealing a car and driving across state lines with an underage girl was not the best way to stage a homecoming.
Instead, he was seated on a bunk next to me spilling his guts.
He did so, I believe, because he heard I was convicted of the crime of religious conscience and somehow--I suppose--he associated that with Father Antonio.
We talked about art and about god and some pretty horrifying crimes he'd committed.
Like I said before, his weird eyes and deep voice were so unsettling...
Anyway, we were interrupted by something or other and I never spoke to him again.
Every day I'd walk by his cell and see him painting. The weirdest memory is that he'd only do clown paintings--really disturbing ones. He had no discernible talent--but he sure had the imagination of a devil.
That's not much of an ending--more of a memory torn loose from it's nest way deep inside my subconscious. I've tried to get rid of Hoetzler's place in my life but it never goes away.
I've written horror stories with him as the main character as a kind of exorcism. It doesn't work.
I guess he's hitched a ride in my mind. I can't chase him away.
This morning he returned.
I'm sorry but this is my way of trying again to rid myself of him.
I've given him to you.