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Excerpt

Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta

James Hannaham

August 30, 2022 
The following is from James Hannaham's novel, Didn't Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta. Hannaham is also the author of the novels God Says No, a Stonewall Book Award finalist, and Delicious Foods, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and Dayton Literary Peace Prize finalist as well as a New York Times Notable Book. He lives in Brooklyn, where he teaches at the Pratt Institute

Two decades and change into her beef, Carlotta Mercedes braced herself for audition number five with the New York State Board of Parole. She knew her many years in the SHU — 23-7 with no TV, no radio, no books, and no good touch — would probably blow her case this time too. With so many box hits, she couldn’t finish any of the A&D programs the knuckleheads like to see. But solitary overkill wasn’t the worst of her shots Them sonofabitches said I had bad behavior, but they definition a bad behavior’s if you scream when a CO whupping yo ass like a Betty Crocker fudge cake. Why did she keep getting hit? Sometimes she thought her case grossed out the panel, other times she blamed her mini-beefs — the LOMs, the LOCs, the LORs, the LOVs. She knew the bosses were pretty much Klansmen, and at some point she always went apeshit.

“Those motherfuckers better let me out this time,” she told Frenzy, the new man she was riding with, out in the yard the day she heard. “Who is they to judge my ass?”

“Shut up, bitch,” he soothed. “You think you special? Don’t expect nothing. You got nothing coming.”

Her eyes rolled behind her lids and she whacked her arms closed. “I been had known not to spect nothing forever by this time. Fifty million motherfuckers already done told me how much nothin I got comin. So let’s see it! Where my nothin at? And who’s more of specials than I is?” Her tongue had slipped a little out of fear that he didn’t really have eyes for her, or big enough ones, anyway. She felt like some kind of monkey-mouth even before she’d shut her trap.

“If you want out, you better learn to talk right,” Frenzy said, flashing a dimple. “Folks be talking proper out there.”

“Oh yeah? Since when?” She gave him face and flipped her hair so it grazed his nose.

In 1993, Carlotta’s cousin Kafele had shot some old lady who sold little bottles of Thunderbird to the skels of Bed-Stuy and put her to sleep for a month. Carlotta was in attendance, showing off her talent for bad timing. The lady woke up again, but the bullet lowered her IQ to a chimpanzee’s and she could hardly brush her own teeth anymore. Kaffy landed in Attica, doing all day and a night. Mama must’ve stopped saving his supper. Carlotta turned state’s evidence and still got 12½ to 22. The public defender called that “getting off with a reduced sentence,” but to Carlotta that didn’t sound like getting off in any way, shape, or form. “The robbery or the aggravated assault with a deadly weapon could have gotten you twenty-five each!” the judge whined. “You’re lucky to be doing them concurrently” That’s luck, then fuck luck.

Sleeping Beauty’s daughter, Noreen Green, always dragged her bitter puss up to the hearings, and she made no exception for this sequel in the franchise. She dug harsh sentences— she thought that if you croaked before you killed your number, they wouldn’t dump your carcass off-site. When she shouted, “I want their bones to turn to dust in the prison cell!” she meant it literally. She had spat that oratory at the public defender, a pale mousy girl with big glasses who looked like a PhD candidate in macramé. Made the poor thing spaz and knock her coffee all over her papers Which show you how good the bitch had her shit together not at all.

Even before Carlotta’s time on the catwalk that day, they’d kept her in the SHU, and of course the COs tried to yank her out before her toilette. She hadn’t finished drying her sink-washed locks and massaging mess hall margarine into her scalp when they banged on the door, barking like Dobermans selling wolf tickets about an upcoming beatdown Ise like, Ho-hum, another? Cause I knew they wasn’t gon do nothing to me right before no damn parole hearing. Or maybe they was gonna but I din’t give a fuck. Part of her wanted to risk an ass-whupping, but the minute she clocked the reality — getting scalped with a bare hand, a Doc Marten jammed in her rib cage — animal fear took over. Her body cashed a check at her memory bank and she could feel the fists and boots of yesteryear colliding with tender body parts. One time a CO belted her in the face and she almost made a meal of her own tongue Ise talkin like Daffy Duck for two fuckin weeks. And of course they punished her for getting punished. Against her will, her mind snapped back to the worst of the worst, a scumbag called Dave, and something inside her gave way like a noose going slack after doing the Strange Fruit swing.

Carlotta pushed her paws through the bean slot and let the COs cuff her. But she hadn’t finished her face — she only had the blue pool-cue chalk (smuggled in from the juvie wing) on her left eyelid This gon look bad. It do look bad! If they got no kick from paroling what some of these jerk-offs called “he-she things” with painted faces, no way would they spring a freakazoid with just one blue eyelid. The minute she saw her chance, she leaned over and smudged her blinker with the one chalky finger she still had, trying to keep everything clear of her headlights, because that might juice her eyeball like a lemon Or maybe I should do like a fountain if that gon get them on my side.

They didn’t let her shower either. As she swung past the cells in the cinder-block alley, she could smell her funk through her prison grays; she hoped nobody else got a whiff Prolly can’t nobody smell nothing over the stench a this joint nohow. Let’s just say her look did not kill, but the peanut gallery whooped it up regardless, all piercing whistles, Hey, mamis, and Do-fries-go-with-that-shakes. Up at Ithaca, a lady din’t always had to bust her sparkle. These lusty hustlers weren’t faking the flattery either, no way, José. Some could take a mocking tone, but if she shook the tree, Carlotta knew she’d get a real nut Oh, honey, at this point they’d fuck a mop. She beamed at the guys and wiggled her fingers as she passed, letting the handcuffs and chains stand in for the rocks and bling she’d’ve preferred. She couldn’t call these suckers suckers, but why not gloat now, knowing the spotlight of parole would never beam down on such luckless gangstas, the same spider monkeys who’d bitten her like Rottweilers mauling a chew toy, passed her around like a spliff until the last tiny red ember in her soul almost winked out with a little puff of smoke Fuck these guys, they’d never even get a hearing, let alone five! My ass be the Susan Lucci a parole! If any of this crew did get parole or even release When hippos fly they’d probably leap back into their hustle toot sweet and boomerang into these same cells. Carlotta’s hellos took on the saccharine taste of scorn Goodbye, Beezus! Goodbye, poor little Stinkbug! Ciao bella, Glitch, you cold-blooded motherfucker! But who could tell if they’d finally boot her out of the joint? Carlotta knew what time it was, she wasn’t bumbling around in Pampers But a bitch gotta dream.

After the whole Get Smart routine with the halls and gates and checkpoints came to an end, the COs pushed open a green door Green like Frankenstein and there sat three poker faces from the NYSPB See Evil, Hear Evil, an Speak Evil fingers poised on padfolios stuffed with the details of every beef they’d give a shot that day Look at them smug-ass faces, think they some kinda gods sittin at a tribunal gon decide my fate, which I guess they kinda are, uh-oh, fuck me.

The second their prisoner made it in, the COs whipped the metal door back and locked it—clang! The clang rang out in the room like a pipe hitting a lamppost, but Carlotta had heard this noise so often that to her, it could’ve been a butterfly fart. In the back left of the room, a few yards from where the guards plopped Carlotta into a standard-issue government chair, Noreen Green sat squinting, crinkling her hand inside a plastic snack bag of — was it pretzels? Or popcorn? Popcorn? Like my suffering is fucking entertainment for your stupid ass? Unlike most victims, Noreen had some sort of special dispensation that allowed her to be in the room More like a cousin who a judge or some shit and had dragged her malfunctioning parent with her, this time in a wheelchair — maybe she thought some extra visual oomph would get Carlotta buried under the jail the way she wanted. The mom, Dorothy, sat silent, lolling her head side to side, grinding her teeth. In any case, she looked cranky. The lights were on in that noggin, but somebody had locked the door—Kaffy, specifically. She seemed worse off than last time, season 19, episode 4 Oh shit, she brung her again? This fucking sucks. Why do I even bother?

One of the panel’s poker faces, none of whom Carlotta recognized This must be a new crew, maybe they gonna see my beef different belonged to a white guy with a baldy bean, round and rough as a basketball. He had on a too-tight suit, probably from a discount outlet; his giant biceps puffed out the sleeves. So much for tailoring. Dead center sat a fiftyish white lady in a black blouse rocking frosted highlights and oversize bifocals; she could pass for a daytime talk-show host from the ’80s Maybe she’ll spring me in exchange for some style tips. The woman kept twisting her gold rings like Gollum or somebody. Off to the right, Carlotta felt judgment pouring from the stink eye of a Black woman with tiny rectangular glasses and a conservative hairdo in the shape of the Liberty Bell, wearing a suit the color of a grape Popsicle. She had a more mysterious look about her than the other two, and that sparked fear in Carlotta She don’t look like the type who gon give you no racial break, she look like the type who give you a hard time cause they think you gonna try some nigga trick they already know, bein a nigga theyself. Try to catch you out when you ain’t even frontin.

The tribunal got the ball rolling by stating their names: Demodocus Johnson Demodocus? He Black? He look too light to be a brotha, but you never know . . . Helen Alcinous, and Malea Thoon, but the names vanished from her head in no time Damn, I can’t never remember nobody’s name, not even when my life literally depend on it! COs musta knocked my memory clean out my head. Sometime I wish they had. The drab chair had a green seat with a rip down the middle, a hole that seemed, like every hole did now, like a good place to stow a shank or stash some molly. Moving her fingers between her legs, she probed the opening to see if someone else had gotten there first and left her a present. She almost forgot to react when Basketball Head piped up.

“Can you please state your name for the record?” he asked.

Carlotta had picked up a reflex for whenever a boss quizzed her. She knew she had to fake like mad, to knuckle under like a trained bear riding a unicycle and balancing a ball on its nose at some Ringling Brothers joint. You had to stuff your ego up your ass and kowtow to the COs and the other shitheads; you had to grind your attitude into a fine powder and try to look as tame as a Ring Ding, what with the mogwai raising hell in your skull all the time, making you so rowdy, so loco Sometime it just be them up in there too, my ass wasn’t nowhere near that brain. She knew she couldn’t tell him her name; an honest answer to even this Mickey Mouse question would bring down enough drama to keep her on ice until she hit the half-century mark. She jammed her frustration into her stomach and took a gander at Basketball Head again. He reminded her of one of those Chinese dogs with the smushy muzzles What they call that?

She could not say Carlotta Mercedes, and she knew it. She pushed her fingers deeper between her legs, careful not to disturb Señora Problema, and tugged at the strings hanging off the sides of the break in the vinyl. Could be every con who ever sat in this chair had done a little fraying. Frenzy had flopped seven times to her four, and he had the knowledge. “The board ain’t gon axe you no questions they don’t got the answers to right there in that jacket,” he told her. “And don’t be altercatin with how they spin your beef, okay? Cause if you tell em they wrong, specially when they is wrong, they just gon give you the heave-ho and bum-rush yo ass right back to D Block.” It had slipped her mind to ask if her name change would rattle them, but now it seemed like, Duh. To call herself Carlotta right off the bat would be suicide. It would lead back to Dave — the thought hollowed her out.

She snarfed down a loogie, trying not to show off too much hate for her deadname, closed her eyes so she could roll them without the board seeing, and sucked in a big breath. “Dustin Chambers, sir,” she said. Then she yanked her hands from between her thighs, raised her wrists, cocked her head to one side, and tried to push her hair back with both cuffed hands. Not easy, so she did it slowly, fanning out her fingers as she went, trying to kill Dustin Chambers again and shout Carlotta Mercedes with body language alone.

“I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” said Basketball Head.

Carlotta froze, dropped her hands back in her lap, and locked her jaw I know I said that shit loud enough, an I know you heard me! Frenzy had coached her on this too. “They gon try to get your goat,” he’d said. “Provoke you to see if you gon freak out and fuck up, which make they job easier cause they get to send your ass right back to the joint. That shit you definitely gotta resist. Don’t give em nothing.”

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From Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta. Used with permission of Little Brown and Company. Copyright © 2022 by James Hannaham.




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