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  • Writer's pictureMichael McConnell


Updated: Apr 26, 2019

I knew I was in trouble when, suddenly, I couldn’t play cards; that is, I couldn’t win at cards, no, not for shit. This was a major departure from the norm. All of my life, I have had more card sense than most people, and regardless of the complexity of the game, from Bridge to Crazy Eights, while not, perhaps, possessing the highest honors in the deck, I always held my own in the upper ranks.

Now, and without warning, Rick, who in my first hours in The South Towers, Level Three had taught me how to play Jailhouse Rummy and who I easily and regularly trounced soon after, was giving me a run for my money. Then, Justin, to whom I had subsequently taught the game and who was, from nearly the beginning, a much more challenging but never unstoppable opponent, was now walking away with game after game. And Hearts, the game at which I would thrash all comers, the one game at which my heretofore-unstoppable skill allowed me even to risk a touch of justifiable cockiness, became an impossible challenge at which to shine.

What was going on? I had a very strong suspicion about the matter (and what better way to express it than with a lyric that might feel at home as a Country-Western song?)

When the gears of life ain’t got no grease, that’s a Mercury Retrograde.

When the squallin’ kids don’t give no peace, that’s a Mercury Retrograde.

When the blender breaks and a tire goes flat,

When a pigeon shits on your favorite hat,

When you stick to your diet, but you still get fat, that’s a Mercury Retrograde.

And it wasn’t just at the card table that I noticed a change in the overall vibe. Communication with the outside world, never a simple endeavor from here on the inside, had become a thornier issue than usual. It was bad enough that I had already received news about the repossession of my car and the apartment fire a week later, but now, when I needed follow-up information regarding both events, the act of making contact with my neighbors was just not happening.

Some static in my attempts at contact made sense. After all, the effects of the fire were terrible for them. That I had to stew, helpless and hamstrung in the county fucking jail was bad enough, but in the coldest, snowiest winter in the history of recorded winters, they actually had to relocate. Even so, it didn’t make sense that every attempted phone call for days went straight into the ozone of voicemail (which in the collect calls only world of jail meant voicemail without the benefit of being able to leave a message), and I couldn’t help wondering if, given all of the possibilities, they perhaps had opted, without checking in with me, to seek an uncharred domicile in a considerably more inviting, certainly more temperate environment like, say, Florida.

Too, reaching my attorney had gone from difficult to impossible. I knew at this point that one of the reasons maintaining contact had become so tricky was because I was competing for attention with the unrelated but certainly pressing issue of the cancer that was, understandably, distracting him from every other element of his life. By this point, however, my case had been referred to his associate whose insistence that I not hesitate, 24/7, to be in touch regarding any question was beginning to ring, by virtue of his failure ever to pick up a call, sickeningly bogus.

When you sleep all day, but you stay real tired, that’s a Mercury Retrograde.

When you work real hard, but you still get fired, that’s a Mercury Retrograde.

When you look for peace, but you find a fight,

When it’s dark all day, and it rains all night,

When nothin’ that you do is right, that’s a Mercury Retrograde.

It was near the first of February, and a good ten days into this unlucky at cards, unlucky at everything else situation when I just had to know if my astrological suspicions were correct. I had been doing the Jailhouse Rummy thing all afternoon, consistently losing to Justin, and we had just launched in to the post-dinnertime phase of the same when I voiced the theory behind my recent losing streak. Unfamiliar with the term, Justin, who is too good a neighbor not to show a sincere interest in just about any topic unknown to him, followed along through my clunky explanation of the approximately three-week long occurrence, three to four times a year, when, in astrological terms, the planet Mercury appears, relative to our own orbit, to be traveling backwards in its route around the sun. During this time, the abilities of Mercury to grease the wheels of progress as regards the machinations of his boss-god, Jupiter, are said to become impaired. The resulting squeaky wheels mean that, for all of us, the highway of life is rife with various delays and other impediments to smooth and speedy travel, and, depending on the relative placement of the stars, planets and other zodiacal elements at the time, the results can range from minor to dire.

I guess my explanation made enough sense to Justin that it also piqued his interest in finding out whether or not I was correct. Confirmation was unlikely from any source but the Internet, and for that we would have to attempt a connection with an amiable deputy. One look up to the bubble to see who was on duty, and, given the nature of our curiosity it was not surprising to see Deputy Cambiglio. Wanting of intellect but generous of ego, Cambiglio is the deputy most unlikely to do anything not grounded in the very satisfying answer he requires to his inevitable question: “What’s in it for me?” The good news was that Cambiglio was currently riveted to the computer, undistracted by the coterie of younger inmates whose favor he liked to pretend desperately not to curry. My paper, Justin’s rock: he got to make the approach. I laid out a game of Solitaire, and, my back to the scene, hoped for the best.

I was barely into the game when Justin returned unenlightened. First of all, Mercury Retrograde, Cambiglio had informed Justin right off the bat, was a reference not to anything astrological; rather, it described a thermometer in the process of measuring the temperature of an item cooler than the atmosphere around it. Secondly, no, Justin could not just take a second to type it in as a search term. There were two unspoken reasons for this decision:

1. Allowing Justin to do so would be tantamount to an admission by Cambiglio that he was incapable of spelling either Mercury or Retrograde.

2. Allowing Justin to do so would be tantamount to an admission by Cambiglio that he could display more interest, even for a moment, in something astrological over the HotAsianPussyinRochester.whatever website he was currently ogling, and wouldn’t that just be too gay for someone as butch as Deputy Cambiglio, no matter what you might infer from the perfectly clear space that existed where his on-again/off-again unibrow sometimes ought to be.

So . . .

When you got no food and your cash is spent, that’s a Mercury Retrograde.

You’ve misplaced your keys; you’ve lost your rent, that’s a Mercury Retrograde.

When you break a nail or you scratch a mole,

When you wake up lookin’ like a troll,

When you cain’t get laid to save your soul, that’s a Mercury Retrograde.

Deputy Cambiglio maintained his nightly presence for nearly a week, and Justin and I both knew better than to attempt to sway him, especially since he had already exerted his superior knowledge regarding technical terms and the scientific instruments to which they apply. I do give high marks to Justin, however, for his attempt, one more time to make his case:

JUSTIN (the next night, to Cambiglio): I believe you, but I think it could apply to horoscopes and stuff, too.

CAMBIGLIO (this time riveted to the LatinaPussy website, and barely responsive to Justin): Mmm, no way, bud.

JUSTIN: OK, but if Mercury Retrograde refers to the downward movement of the mercury in a thermometer, what is the term when it goes up?

CAMBIGLIO (long-suffering sigh): Look buddy, I don’t got time to wipe your butt and educate you, all in the same night. Mercury Incendograde, OK?

Take that, anyone who would maintain that the county jail experience offers no opportunity for continuing education.

So, with Cambiglio blocking our Internet efforts by night, and knowing that the day-shift guys (with exceptions made for the occasional Home Depot search or local gun show query) were totally by-the-book when it came to Internet use, Justin and I had to sit on our Mercury Retrograde curiosity. Meanwhile, my luck both at the card table and with outside communication continued crappy. Not only that, but a book order I had been expecting now for a week was woefully behind, and I was rapidly coming to the end of all reading material known to me. The Mercury Retrograde as culprit was becoming less and less a possibility, and more certain with every stumbling footstep through the passing of time.

Justin, by this time, had shared both my suspicions and our Mercury Retrograde primer with a couple of other guys, and except that the overwhelming reaction was to question what made things different in a Retrograde from any other day in the fucking county jail, the general idea that we might be involved in some sort of astrologically-induced slump acquired some traction.

Finally, exactly twenty-one nights from my first glimmer of astrological suspicion, I looked up toward the bubble from my losing hand of cards and saw, instead of our old stand-by, Cambiglio, the welcome sight of Deputy Fraternico. Ordinarily, and in most

areas, the two deputies are practically interchangeable. I mean, Cambiglio is a little better looking; Fraternico is the lumpier of the two. He is also, in a world in which no one comes off as anything remotely Einsteinesque, a little bit the brighter bulb, but that trait can, at times, serve to make him a little more sadistic. (Cambiglio, by comparison, manages only the requisite smarts to be unwittingly masochistic, and that, in my opinion makes him slightly more dangerous.)

When it comes to leniency, neither is ideal, but, unfortunately, and with only rare exceptions, we are generally stuck with one or the other in the role of eighth-grader as minder-manqué. The good thing about Fraternico in the current situation was that he’s not nearly the control freak that Cambiglio is. He can be just as attached to mindless, Internet games and sleazy porn sites, but if one of us poses a question in the manner of ours about the Mercury Retrograde, Fraternico, of the two, is way more likely to show at least a begrudging interest that might even result in useful information.

It was my scissors to Justin’s paper, so, again, the approach was his to make. This time I followed him to the bubble, and was right behind him when he lobbed the question.

FRATERNICO (not looking up from his game of Battle Star Bloodbath, or whatever it’s called): Nope, but my girlfriend does. All I know is it’s bad, and we’re in one.

JUSTIN: Yeah. Feels like it. Mind checking the exact dates?

FRATERNICO (still without looking up, opens a new tab, types in a search, looks impatient while it loads, gets the info, closes the tab, hurls a photo-lance through a Space Knight in blood-shining armor): January 21st until today.

JUSTIN: Thanks, Deputy.

FRATERNICO (expressionless): Always a pleasure.

And so, I had my answer. I had no idea if in the next couple of days, as Mercury transitioned into its direct course, there would be a difference in my luck at cards, or any positive movement in the progress of my case, but, somehow, in knowing that the celestial pressure brought recently to bear upon my life was about to ease up, I was hopeful. We hadn’t thought to ask Fraternico the dates for the next Retrograde, but I know from experience not to expect it until sometime in mid-May. Surely to God, by

that time I’ll be out of here and once again in the outside world, where, knowing that it could never be as bad as this, it would be my pleasure to invite Mercury to do his worst.

An occasion we’ve all come to fear,

Will occur three or four times each year.

If the circuits all fry,

Or the laundry won’t dry,

You can bet that occasion is here.

An occasion we’ve all come to dread,

Has returned with its gun to our head.

So the time won’t be long,

Everything will go wrong,

And we all would be better off dead.

An occasion we’ve all come to hate,

Has begun on today’s dreaded date.

It put leaks in the coaster,

And ruined a toaster.

How bitter, how bleak is our fate.

An occasion we’ve all come to loathe,

Will pile woeth upon woeth upon woeth.

Must worth lead to worth?

Why can’t time just reverth,

Like a knitter unknitting her rowth?

Coming soon:




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