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Escape at Intermission of ‘The Big Heat’


There are four guys to a cell after court day. By supper, when the judge has sent everyone he’s going to send off to state prison, we each got a bunk and nobody sleeps on the floor. The guys leave things behind, stuff that can be put to good use. Little foil tubes of toothpaste, washcloths (we use rubbing alcohol to sanitize), bars of soap (we scratch off the pubic hairs), and extra cups and spoons, maybe a pillow which a guy hasn’t cried all over.

You can’t say it is roomy, but you can stretch your legs some. Some of the guys, like Joe Romeo, do pull-ups off the top bunks. Upside-down sit-ups, too. You can sit on the bottom mattresses and play cards on the floor, tame games like Go Fish or Crazy 8s. They won’t let us play nothing that’s like real gambling. Nothing that would require a brain.

Court day is Monday and on Tuesday nights they roll a Panasonic television down the hallway and angle it so all three cells can see the screen. The guys in the last cell have to push up against their bars in order to watch, and they bitch (no matter who is in there) that just once we should roll the TV down to their end. That’s not going to happen, the guards say. Too much chance of the Panasonic getting busted.

“County owns it,” Ross Peeler, the chief jailer, tells us. “County owns you assholes, too.”

Peeler’s gotta be six-five, a good two-fifty (most of it farm boy muscle), and has fists the size of bricks. I know this because he pounded my face back when he was a sheriff’s deputy and I was brawling in a bar out on the river. He broke my nose so flat that now they call me “Catfish.” Also I got whiskers like a channel cat, waxed and grown out so they are getting ready to poke in my ears.

“Turn the sound up,” I growl at Peeler as he turns to walk away after checking the picture for us. He throws me a look like you see cops do all the time. Nodding, he reaches down and twists the sound knob ever so slightly.

“Maybe if you hadn’t ruined your brain taking so much dope,” he grins at me, “you could hear the danged movie, Catfish.”

Peeler gets a hardy har and says he’ll be back presently. He’ll make sure there’s an intermission halfway through the movie. Joe Romeo says somebody keep him caught up on the start of our movie, “The Big Heat,” because he’s got to take a shit. He gets groans from his boys in the middle cell for this because our toilets are at the back wall of each cell. It’s going to stink and Joe Romeo says sorry that he ate extra beanies with his weenies at lunch.

Lee Marvin comes on talking tough about swatting around a few cops and the guys erupt in a cheer that brings Peeler through the cage door shaking his head. Pipe down, boys, he says.


Joe Romeo has got this rash on his lower back that looks angry and he says burns and itches both. He claims it is from the dirty mattress he sleeps on, and Peeler tells him to hire a better lawyer and maybe he can sleep in his bed at home from now on.

They give the little mixed-race check forger a few dabs of rubbing alcohol in a cotton swab every couple of days.

“My grandmother used rubbing alcohol to cure her husband’s liver cancer,” Peeler tells Joe Romeo when the inmate complains this remedy ain’t working well enough. “Just a few drops every Sunday night in his buttermilk, the liver cured right up. Too bad it give him stomach cancer, though.”

Joe Romeo says his grandmother – a Puerto Rican who ran a voodoo emporium down at the town docks in the early years of our riverboat casinos – made a fortune selling tonics and such, most of which was fruit-based or come from reptile innards.

“I cain’t get you no lizard innards,” Peeler frowned at our little chiseler. “But it’s a good possibility I can up your fruit cup allotment, based on if you continue to be on your best behavior.”

So they give me an extra fruit cocktail or peach slices when we have them. But he says it may only partly be working because his back is still enflamed underneath the skin and it keeps him up a night. There is whispers around the cells, when Joe Romeo sleeps during the daytime (which is often), that our brown-hued counterfeiter has haunted dreams such that is turning him insane.

I watch him during the movie, by where I can see his reflection on the screen, to gauge whether he is a man coming unhinged or not. It is not like I believe myself to be an expert in crackups, but I’ve seen my share. In here and in other jailhouses and penitentiaries. There’s a look they have, a mask that creeps over their face. But all I see is a man who likes his Lee Marvin movies.


Ross Peeler comes out, twirling his keys as always, and he lays his meaty hand on top of the TV and announces our intermission.

“Pull your puds, take a leak, crap in the tank,” he says in his deep loud voice that he uses to announce the stock-car races out at the fairgrounds. “We’re taking five, gentlemen.”

Joe Romeo pulls up to his bars, where the slot is, and says he has already pooped. He asks Peeler if he can come over and see what this is in his eye, because maybe it is a flying ant like they have been seeing around the jailhouse all week. Peeler says pry your eye open and he leans in to look.

Joe Romeo splashes a full cup of alcohol in the jailer’s face and grabs his wrists, while another inmate (a fella from Kings County who had just come in over the weekend on wife-beating charges) spins big Peeler around, his back now to the barred door, and then quickly ties him (by the neck) to a pair of bars. Joe Romeo plucks the keys from Peeler’s fingers. They use socks to gag him and then, after opening the door and coming around to face him, they handcuff Peeler to the same bars they’ve tied him to.

“Let me know how this movie ends, boys,” Joe Romeo hollers over his shoulder.

The other fella just stands there a second and then follows our double-dealer out through the cage door and, presumably, through a side door which takes an old skeleton key. We hear an engine come on and rev outside and we look at each other. Someone realizes the movie is still paused.

“Let’s finish watching it,” I say, “and then we’ll cut old Peeler loose from his bindings.”


Joe Romeo stays on the run for four months, makes it all the way out to Arizona before the law there swoops on him on account of he is still writing bogus checks everywhere he goes. The wife-beater from Kings County, they caught him that same night. He went straight home and argued with his wife about there being nothing for supper. His knuckles all bloody and bruised, they come through his kitchen door swinging batons and kicking with boots – while this good old boy is chowing down on some heated-up friend chicken and boiled eggs.

I am, unfortunately, back in the jail when they drag Joe Romeo in. (I got a problem with stealing cars and selling stolen car parts.) I have a date with the judge this very Monday. And while I expect my number to get punched this time (state prisoner xxx-xx-xxx), seeing the marshals sling our old cozener around the bullpen is uplifting. They crack his head to the bars some, crush his nuts with a knee and some boot heels, and just generally wreck his face with knuckles.

Ross Peeler comes waltzing in, twirling his keys. He sits on a stool outside the middle cell where they’ve put Joe Romeo and sighs.

“We watched the end of that movie,” he says lazily, “and here’s how it goes …”