At twenty, if someone had told me I’d be spending my thirty-fifth birthday serving a life sentence in Attica State Correctional, I’d have tied two concrete blocks to my feet and flung myself into the Irish Sea. No-one did tell me, so here I am.
Patrick James O’Donovan: prisoner #624 in New York’s human landfill, peach fuzz where my thick copper hair used to be, face the colour of a raw sausage from years without sunlight. It’s just after midnight on the first day of December 1986, and I’m lying on my bed in Cell Block C, listening to the sound of rain pelting against the prison walls. I turn onto my left side. Move the pillow. Breathe in, breathe out, close my eyes and try to remember the tips the psychologist gave.
It’s no use.
Tonight is one of those nights when the past comes to visit, and no amount of bullshit cognitive therapy is going to get in its way.
Blood. Rubble. A dead little girl. That’s what everyone remembers about my case, but in truth the story starts earlier. It starts with me at twenty years of age, hunched over the dish-pit in Morty’s Ale n’ Grub House on 43rd Street, Queens. Clouds of steam are billowing up from the basin, stinging the zits on my cheeks as I look up and see Chip Hoggford wincing down at me through his square-framed glasses.
‘Yo, Paddy! I am not paying you to watch water,’ he says, jowls glistening under the harsh kitchen lights. Hoggford waddles across the kitchen, lifts a loaded plate off the service counter and peers down at it. Inspecting. Evaluating. I glance across at the fry-cook, Tom, at the exact moment he turns to look at me. We both know what’s coming. Hoggford picks a sausage off the plate and holds it up in his right hand.
‘Yo Shaft,’ he says. ‘What the hell’s this?’
Tom scoops up a spatula-full of eggs and turns them over before looking up.
‘It’s a sausage, Mr. H. One hundred percent prime American pork.’
A laugh escapes my mouth and Hoggford looks round and roars: ‘Move your ass you little Mick sonofabitch!’ I cast my eyes down, tip a tray full of greasy plates into the water and start scrubbing, but when Hoggford turns back to Tom I look up again. He raises the sausage once more.
‘It don’t look like a premium pork sausage,’ Hoggford says. ‘Looks like what I found in my cat’s crap-box this morning.’
Tom grabs a plate from the pile to his left.
‘Damn,’ he says. ‘What you feedin’ that kitty, Mr. H?’
The roll of fat on the back of Hoggford’s neck turns pink. He starts yelling that he hasn’t hired Tom to be ‘a goddamn comedian’ and that there’s ‘no shortage of fry-cooks in this city’. Tom places two slices of buttered toast on the plate and throws more bacon on the grill, not responding to the manager or even looking at him. Hoggford carries on ranting, jabbing his index finger in Tom’s direction now, and I can see the outline of a pale blue vein popping up under the pasty skin of his brow. The waitress with the dimpled chin pokes her head into the kitchen, sees what’s going on and pokes it straight out again. A minute later Hoggford’s walking away from the service counter, looking fit to self-combust. Tom can serve up fifteen fried breakfasts in five minutes and, when a guy has that kind of speed, you don’t fire him for the occasional overdone sausage. Hoggford knows this. Tom knows it too. He’s whistling now, a happy little tune, one in the eye for the fat man. The vein on Hoggford’s forehead has swelled to the size of soda straw. That’s when he says it.
Tom is silent a moment, then he puts his spatula down. He walks out from behind the grill.
‘What you just call me?’ he says.
Hoggford stops. He turns.
‘I said you’re a wise-ass, jungle boy, now why don’t you—’