No Escape from Planet Alcatraz

When I first sat down to write the introduction for Hard Sentences, I was a little sad I couldn’t just write a story instead, but everybody was saying it was bad form to contribute fiction to an anthology you’re editing. And I was almost resigned to the fact I wouldn’t be able to write any tall tales about Alcatraz, until I realized what a perfect position I was in. All I had to do was write a story anyway and just claim it was true, the opposite of all great fiction. Or at least something all good intros should be, right? And by lying my ass off like this, I’d have snuck a short story right through the back door, snuck it into prison, you could say, something only a madman would attempt. It’s not like anyone reads introductions anyway. And if you really start thinking about it, this set-up is the perfect cover story if what I’m about to tell you actually did go down. Which it did, while researching the fiction I was going to pass off as true, everything happened exactly as I described. Confused yet? Just wait!

It was about three years ago when I first moved to California that I heard about the Red Bull-sponsored “King of the Rock” basketball tournament being played at Alcatraz, and the idea for a book hit me like a bolt of lightning, or at least a regulation-inflated basketball to the face. Seriously, they were playing one-on-one games right there in the prison yard, where so many inmates had done the same (although 2/3rds of the Alcatraz prison population was white, so the games probably took a little longer). And when I heard about this tournament, first, I wished I’d been born with any sort of basketball skills whatsoever, but sadly, the only thing I was worse at was football, and after that, everything else. My only moment of triumph after three years of football in a very football town was turning off the boombox in the locker room right before the song “In the Air Tonight” hit the big drum moment, resulting in a bunch of seniors plowing me into a fence at the next practice and holding my feet off the ground until an assistant coach reluctantly made them set me free. The closest thing I probably got to experiencing prison, come to think of it.

When I first sat down to write the introduction for 'Hard Sentences,' I was a little sad I couldn’t just write a story instead, but everybody was saying it was bad form to contribute fiction to an anthology you’re editing.

But in basketball, I didn’t even have that kind of highlight reel. Except that one time I wrestled away a jump ball, displaying my amazing ability to travel. The coach even came up with a name for it, “Keatons on the Feetons,” a story I told my nephew, who then told his Jr. High football team, who all started using it during practice, meaning that phrase was adopted three states away and translates as just “fucking up” in general. Better than a goddamn trophy.

Now, since I’d never taken the infamous Alcatraz Island tour, I figured this was a good way to kill two birds with one stone. I had zero chance of actually playing in the basketball tournament, and not just because I wasn’t one of the Top 64 players in the world and therefore not allowed to set foot on the court, but because I was terrible, remember? But I did get that jump ball once. And it seemed to me that you could wrestle a ball away from anyone if you wanted it enough. Also, I knew I’d have to do this soon because there was a rumor that the tournament was ending, actually moving to Chichen Itza next year, to be played at an actual Mayan temple? Or maybe I was conflating two dreams I’d had. Either way, I knew it was now or never. So I slammed a couple Red Bulls to get my mind right and bought my tickets. One for the tour and one for the tournament. 575 bucks, though the Red Bulls were free.

Side note: I knew a guy who drove one of those stumpy little Red Bull trucks, and he had cases of the stuff he gave away. I took some, too, though I’d never been a huge fan of the swill, probably because I drank too much to stay awake during all-nighters at a radio gig about ten years back, and one night, halfway through Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” (a prison song, of course, but more importantly, a song all DJs used to run to the toilet, a move facilitated by the drink itself), I’d finally pinpointed that unique taste. Blueberry-infused aluminum assholes. Seems like a weird sponsor for a prison basketball tournament, or any tournament, for that matter, but I’m no scientist. And, hell, prisoners make wine in their toilets.

Anyway, I arrived on Alcatraz way early, taking the first ferry out at 8:30 a.m., more than time enough for the tour before the first tournament bracket got started at 3:00 that afternoon. And as soon as I saw the graffiti and the crumbling buildings and heard the echo of the boat horn as we bumped the dock, I was mesmerized.

Alcatraz Island. I couldn’t believe. Stepping onto it from a boat also amplified the exoticness of the place. See, I watch a lot of movies, and I knew they’d filmed a bunch of them right around my feet. What movies? Well, The Rock, of course. Escape from Alcatraz, of course. Birdman of Alcatraz, of course. But other lesser-known hits like The Enforcer, Murder in the First, X-Men 3, Point Blank, White Men Can’t Swim . . .

Speaking of, one of the things I learned on the tour was that those famous stats about no one escaping from this prison were not quite accurate. By all accounts, several inmates made it to the water. So I guess it all depends on your definition of “escape.” Like if you’re eventually shit out of a shark in a fine, gray mist and finish your end-zone dance by dusting the coral at the bottom of the San Francisco Bay, that’s almost as noble of a finale as your loved ones scattering your ashes off a fishing boat, isn’t it? At the very least, it should definitely qualify as getting out. I feel like this should be included in the brochure.

FBI photo


It was about halfway through the tour when I saw the heads.

Replicas of the heads anyway. Vicki, the tour guide, explained that in the early morning of June 12, 1962, Clarence Anglin, John Anglin, and Frank Morris tucked homemade dummy heads into their beds and slipped through a ventilation shaft, surfed down a pipe, climbed two barbed-wire fences, inflated a raft made of prison-issue raincoats, and then paddled off to freedom. Or death (semantics). Nine days later, the search party found remnants of their shredded, makeshift raft, but even if they were capsized by the powerful Bay currents within minutes, they would have been free for plenty long enough for it to count.

And it was these freaky heads that ensured their escape, the tour guide reminded us. And he let us each take a turn filing through the cell to get a good, long look. They’d been meticulously constructed just as carefully as Morris and the Anglin brothers had masterminded their own doppelgängers, crafted from a papier-mâché-like mixture of toilet paper and soap, marbles for eyes, specifically milky blue-and-white onionskin “aggies” that Frank Morris always carried for good luck, a couple haphazard white Chiclets for teeth (they were Southern boys with Southern smiles), and then topped off with swatches of human hair swiped from the prison barbershop floor. The hair on the replicas looked more than a little bit like Burt Reynolds’ worst wig, from his Smokey and the Bandit II era, not like his perfect square head in The Longest Yard, filmed at Georgia State Prison, by the way, which is no Alcatraz and has a shit-ton of successful escapes. All in all, it looked a lot more like Clint Eastwood playing Frank Morris than the actual Frank Morris, so that’s a bit of symmetry anyway.

Back on the tour, I think I gave Vicki the slip right around his tales of “Times Square,” and right then I knew I was going to steal one of those fake heads. I wasn’t sure why I was doing this, to be honest, except that I was new meat on the West Coast, and maybe I really wanted to make some sort of impact, and maybe they’d still know my name around the island, now decades after it closed? If I got caught. But all I knew for sure was that it seemed important to set one of those heads free, if only for a second . . .

Who am I kidding? I was on Alcatraz Island, goddamnit! Where they filmed Point Blank! Maybe I just wanted to immortalize something as insane as that movie on camera. And the King of the Rock tournament was being carried on at least three Mexican cable stations. I’m not stupid enough to try and get arrested, but I’m not above a little high-profile vandalism. And if there’s somewhere that should welcome a little vandalism, it’s Alcatraz, right? You know all those movie crews fuck up all sorts of stuff while they’re filming, right? And there’s renovations on Alcatraz prison every year. At this point, there’s probably no original brick left. Certainly no original heads.

Briefly, I considered making my own head at home and coming back to swap it out. Just smuggle one to freedom, then take a picture of it on the ski lift at Lake Tahoe, or a reasonably expensive seat at a Sharks game, on tour like a “Flat Stanley.” That would have made more sense. A little planning and nothing would have turned out like it did. But, ironically, it was the idiocy of my plan that saved me in the end.

I lingered around the hallways with the tour still within earshot, hanging out in section near the church that was undergoing restoration. Through one of the windows, I saw the camera crews and basketball tournament organizers streaming off the ferry, and I knew I had about an hour to figure out the caper.

And somewhere around this time is when I remembered the only other tour I ever took in my life, at the Denver museum of Natural History, and their freaky exhibit with the Aztecs playing basketball with someone’s godforsaken head. Okay, not an actual head. They don’t use real heads in museum exhibits, unless you’re an unlucky Chinese political prisoner on tour with Bodies: The Exhibition, forever dancing with another freeze-dried cadaver with a matching bullet pucker over your ear, or that poor bastard who had his skull incorporated into the “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions” exhibit at Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. But despite Denver’s display curators having the good sense not to use actual corpses, it was still pretty terrifying.

The diorama depicted the famously brutal Mesoamerican ballgames of the Mayan civilization, similar to the less-brutal Incan version, but not as high-scoring as the horrific Aztec version, where prisoners and high priests indulged in the ancient precursor to modern-day basketball. And, yes, they did this with heads.

I’d always thought this was a myth, but according to Bobby, the tour guide, they first started filling their crude animal-skull balls with goat bladders to give them a better bounce, which made the games faster, so that the losers got executed a lot quicker. Then they switched to using human bladders, Bobby explained, plucked from the bodies of the sacrificed players themselves. Now that’s two birds with one stone. Our bladders were smaller and had more “spring” in them, she said. Then she pointed us to the restrooms.

I also learned it was the Spanish during their conquests who’d first witnessed the severed heads of prisoners being used in place of balls. They didn’t have the rebound of those early balls, but you can’t really go back to goat-bladders after a prisoner’s face smiles at you all the way through the hoop.

It just had to be prisoners, right? Endlessly exploited throughout history, I imagined the guards playing the game with them, the red-faced bulls doing clumsy alley-oops. It was the perfect prison metaphor I needed for the book; prisoners turned to sport, much like Alcatraz turned into a tourist attraction, how simply being internalized in movies, books, and song was little consolation.

I stuffed a head under my shirt and ran outside. I think it was Frank’s.

Then I hit the Yard so we could watch the game together.

It was some time during the slam-dunk contest and watching all those cameras swooping around to follow the action that I realized what I was going to do. I no longer wanted to merely smuggle a head to the mainland and freedom or whatever. Instead, I was convinced I needed to run Frank out onto the basketball court and chuck him through the hoop. Don’t ask why. My dad, who coached girls much better than me at the sport, warned us once that a slam-dunk was worse than pointless. “It’s a story in the middle of a song,” he said. “And no one wants to hear that shit.”
But a slam-dunk contest at Alcatraz made more sense to me than the current game of one-on-one. A regular game is burdened by gravity, you see. And there’s an understandable obsession with flying among prisoners. Or wings. In fact, the only thing a prisoner is more likely to grow from his back besides wings is the handle of a sharpened toothbrush. But you couldn’t blame sky-gazing birdmen from haunting crumbling jailhouse halls when Spaniard Juan Manuel de Ayala, the first European to explore San Francisco Bay, christened it La Isla de los Alcatraces in 1775, a name Vicki explained meant “Island of the Pelican.” Not really, but his translation was close enough. But it is true that the Rock was a lot more rock-like back then though, with very little greenery, and seabirds preferred this rubble to civilization.

There’s something about islands. Combine an island with a prison, and you’ve got a recipe for mythmaking, like the stories you’ll find in Hard Sentences.

Except maybe for Rikers Island. That shit feels man-made, especially after they hooked the artificial satellite “Vernon” to it. A prison barge is slumped, uninspired, listless, like something bobbing around in a Waterworld outake. Because, at the risk of being the asshole who always says, “It’s not ‘Frankenstein’; it’s Frankenstein’s monster,” Alcatraz was always the name of the island first and the prison second, so, in this case, the monster does share the name of its father. And that makes all the difference.

Rikers Island

I plotted my dunk strategically, remembering from my Denver tour that the original Mayan hoops were stone, and that they were sideways, like someone had grabbed the rim for their dunk and cranked it like a doorknob on the way down. So this shit should be way easier, I decided. I considered trying to hang on the rim, too, but it seemed like an impossible goal. Running out and slamming that head through the hoop would be victory enough.
  So that’s exactly what I do. True story.
 I take three big steps, traveling all the way, then sailing up, up, and slam. Crazily, once the head clears the hoop, the damn thing keeps going, bouncing once on the foul line, then out of the Yard, then up and over the nearest wall, seeking every story it can find, through a window and into the prison library and past the photo-op where Whitey Bulger famously got his tourist photo taken while he was on the lam, and from there the head pinballs through the shower heads, down to the dock, and under the pier, where it rolls over a millipede, leaving a glow-in-the-dark comet streak across a dusty cheek like war paint, then it ricochets off the lighthouse and launches past the graffiti on the water tower, still bright as blood from the occupation, sailing high over the guard tower where Joseph Bowers was shot climbing the fence, for a quick lap across the entire Bay, where the head dodges the shadows of the almost 2,000 jumpers since 1937, their bodies flash-burned into memory as they pirouette off that blood-red bridge with the unlikely but complicit name of “Golden Gate,” until the head’s orbit brings it back around, skipping the Pacific Ocean like a stone, off the noses of sharks and gannets and all the way back through a broken window to swirl around the shower drain that routinely collected Al Capone’s blood while he wept, past the rope where they dangled the key before the riot, before it finds its home back under the sheets of Cell 138, where it takes the place of Frank Morris himself, becoming him easily as he vanishes from the planet forever . . .

The pull of that tractor beam is no joke. The San Francisco Bay might be the closest thing our country has to its own Bermuda Triangle, with more than a hundred shipwrecks due to its strange weather, a perfect storm of strong currents, thick fog, and a reef as sharp as any jaws. I know how an island is supposed to work, anchored to the Earth and not bobbing there in the water like bait, but somehow this island seems simultaneously more and less stable than that, as if the mirror image of Alcatraz really does extend beneath the waves, as if the symmetry of this rock spins imperceptibly on its own, exuding its own gravity, letting no one free, no matter how hard they swim.

Planet Alcatraz.

After those historic Mayan ballgames, there’s still some debate as to whether they sacrificed the winning team or the losing team. Which seems like something that should have been agreed upon before the game started or you’d end up with some serious Blue Chips point-shaving incidents, but maybe these games were where point-shaving originated, at exactly the same time as basketball itself. Not surprisingly, they also invented the first three-step rule, to avoid Keatons on the Feetons, I presume, but their games only went to eight points. Coincidentally, that’s exactly the same number of points I scored all through high school. Exclusively foul shots. Hey, at least they weren’t underhand, like that kid in the wheelchair in Hoosiers.

Speaking of underhanded! Okay, time to come clean. I can’t dunk for shit either. You already knew that. So the head didn’t go on adventures. Here’s the truth of it, since this is an introduction and not a story. Instead, Frank’s head came down on the rim, and those white Chiclets went everywhere, like Frank had been curb-stomped. And the rim tore through the head much easier than it would have torn through an actual skull. Or so I’m told. But what I’d done, and what saved me from being charged with whatever crime that might be, was I’d inadvertently proven this fake head was more like a real head after all, hidden in a plain sight in a National Park where over 5,000 tourists passed by it every damn day. Not a real human head, of course, because that would be fucking bonkers. But for whatever reason, the dummy head from Frank Morris’ old cell contained the skull of a coyote, presumably for heft? Or maybe shape? Or the smile? Who knows. But this revelation, combined with the cherry-preserves filling that topped off the ridiculous prop, was realistic enough to get referee whistles blowing and children screaming, and me and my almost Vaudevillian handful of pie I was still holding got us both hustled off the court and into the old guard tower for questioning. The actual guard tower! I was swooning. 

Later that night, I heard that 36-year-old L.A. native Tarron “The Beast” Williams won the tournament and the $20,000, and he was crowned the final “King of the Rock.” I can’t remember who got the thousand bucks for winning the slam-dunk contest, but I still feel like I’d earned an honorable mention, at least. TVs recorded none of my feat, however, or if they did, the tapes were destroyed, as the National Park Service was already working hard to deflect rumors of prison tours decorated with bona fide human remains.

This is why tours rarely give details of the grisly Mesoamerican ballgames, and only whisper of the blasphemous Mayan slam-dunk. Because prison is weird enough already, you know? And if White Men Can’t Jump taught me anything, it’s that if you’re palming a human head like a basketball, especially if you’re down by one and going up for the final shot, or doing something as stupid as telling a story in the middle of a movie, or if you clear your throat and flap your arms like wings when your only task is to write the introduction for a bunch of stories that should more than speak for themselves, only a fool would try to show off.

David James Keaton

Column by David James Keaton

David James Keaton's fiction has appeared in over 100 publications, and his first collection, Fish Bites Cop! Stories to Bash Authorities, was named the 2013 Short Story Collection of the Year by This Is Horror. His second collection of short fiction, Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead, received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly, who said, “Decay, both existential and physical, has never looked so good.” He is also the author of the novels The Last Projector and Pig Iron (maybe soon to be a motion picture), as well as the co-editor of the upcoming anthology Hard Sentences: Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz. He teaches composition and creative writing at Santa Clara University in California.

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