“Valumfree” by Richard Sale


I have been laboring for over ten years on a novel called “Daily Trials.” A long while ago, I spent a month in the Arizona State Prison for LIFE Magazine. Two inmates ran the prison. One of them was a close friend of a third inmate who was being allowed to die because of the negligence of corrupt prison doctors. The prison psychologist and I were threatening with being taken hostage unless the inmate was transferred into a civilian hospital. This I did. I got him transferred.

This chapter is based on an actual incident. There was a killer named Tim Valumfree put on Death Row for killing two men, and one day he appeared in the prison psychologist’s office, Val Emery, to ask him for a better job. As I listened, I had realized that I had never heard anything so shameless, arrogant, rude and unfeeling as Valumfree s rant, so I blew up I told Valumfree he was a first-class jackass without manners, courtesy, or any civilized virtue, or words to that effect.

One day, when I was about to leave the Yard to go lift weights with two convicts, both bank robbers, I stood with Val Emery as the guard on the gate lowered the keys the IER Yard where the weights were, using a fishing pole. This was May of 1970. Some guys from Death Row were lined up behind us, and I was paying them no attention, when suddenly I felt a sharp poke in the middle of my back. I turned. It was Tim. He smirked “See, I could have stabbed you just now,” which was the wrong thing to say. I am a very shy man, but there is a hair trigger lurking in my nature and Tim pulled it. I cursed him out again for his rudeness, and then asked him, “Why would you want to stab me? Because I called you names?”

In the second chapter of the novel, Ben Falls is listening to his clerk, Jute, relate how he had had a run-in with Valumfree over the weekend. I know this is a bit long, but I ask you to please bear with me.

                                Red Gelatin Salad Night.

      They were talking about the Sunday evening meal always included a red gelatin salad, which Jute detested, and he was now was talking to Ben about how the Padre had taken some inmates out on Saturday to play handball in the IER Yard. Ben was saying, “So Tim Valumfree really came out?” Valumfree was a Death Row inmate who liked to boast he’d cut the throats of ten people, but Ben had knew better. Valumfree’s file said he had murdered two colleagues, both café waiters like himself, by ambushing them in a Phoenix parking lot, shooting at them with a rifle from a safe distance.   “I didn’t know he played handball.”

   “He doesn’t –   he just thinks he does. His big mistake was challenging the padre to a series.”

     “Not a very good idea,” Ben said. He had seen Father Murphy play.

   “In about ten minutes, Valumfree was bent over, red-faced, hands on his knees,” Jute said. “You would have thought he’d blown up 500 balloons — and not those bright, pretty little things you see at birthday parties, but those big sightseeing ones that carry people over the desert.”

     “I really admire the padre,” said Ben. “I was thinking the other day of how he treats the inmates with dignity and kindness. It’s just what the men need. It’s just the opposite of custody. ”

     “Custody thinks that not all animals are in a zoo.”

     Ben shrugged. “Well, custody isn’t much of a job, and you don’t get much of a man who wants to do it,” he said.

     “Is that it? I always thought that at birth they’d been hit in the head by something heavy,” Jute said. He sat his desk but suddenly turned. “Did I tell you about my little run with Tim?”

   “When was this?”


     “How would I know? I was at home.”

     Jute blushed a bit. “You’re right.  Anyway, we all know that Valumfree thinks he’s some kind of giant mind,” Jute said. “He loves to set all these little intellectual ambushes for people to prove how smart he is.”

     “Is he really like that?” Ben asked.

     “He’s mean right down to the gums. So on Saturday, he comes in here, and he gets this shifty, sly sort of look, and he asks me, do I know what the word ‘euphemism’ means.  Like I’m sort of some unread idiot or something,” Jute said.  “I mean, why is it all stupid people think they’re cunning? So I told him the word was a synonym for periphrasis — a weasel word meant to disguise meaning of something rather than revealing it –“

    “—circumlocutory— ”

    “…and I said that if he looked up a dictionary for a synonym for `arrested intelligence’ — which, in his case, should be the equivalent for ‘pretentious moron,’ that he’d very likely find a reference to himself by name.”

     Ben’s face had suddenly reddened in laughter. “Did you really?”

     “Oh, yeah, I did.”

     Ben laughed with delight.

     “I really did,” Jute said. “I mean, Jesus. Valumfree thinks he’s some sort of giant brain.”

     “Well, I don’t think pretentious moron would be one of his favorite self-

descriptions,” Ben said.

     “Hey; screw,” said Jute.  He was busy mopping up some split coffee from the shelf which held the coffee pot and heating coil.

     “How did he take it? What you said.” Ben asked.

     Jute shrugged, scrubbing, “Well, of course, he wasn’t pleased; I mean, he let loose all this stuff. Anyway, who cares?”

       “Did he say anything else?” Valumfree’s self control struck Ben as odd.

     Jute sighed and stopped scrubbing and stared off. “Well, let me see: among my other imperfections, I was a little flunky; that was one; and I was your tool. Oh — and I was a snitch, too. I was a sneaky, cheese-eating rat snitch. The last one was designed to annihilate me in every fiber.” He again scrubbed away at the counter with his coarse cloth.

      Ben was puzzled. “So he didn’t blow up at you?”

     Jute shrugged. “He launched his little broadside of poison darts at me and quit.” He was still scrubbing. But Ben noticed his clerk was not meeting his eye.

   “You sure?”

   “Pretty much. Just sprayed his insults around like a skunk.””

     “You are sure that’s all he said?”

   “Well, I wasn’t taking notes. Why are you dwelling on this in the first place?” Jute was suddenly a bit querulous.

   There was silence for a minute. Ben was carefully considering his clerk. Something wasn’t right.

     “Maybe we should talk to him,” Ben said.

     Jute’s head quickly came up as  if he’d been stung by a bee. “Why would you want to talk to him? ”    

   “Because it doesn’t make sense,” Ben said.  “He is a murderer, Jute. He’s volatile. He has killed two innocent, defenseless men. Did he threaten you? Did he threaten to torch your cell? Ambush you? Did he threaten to have you stabbed in chow line? What else did he say, Jute?”

     “How’s he going to have my cell torched from Condemned, for Christ’s sake?” Ben’s clerk was angry.

     “So you’re sure?” Ben asked.

     “Sure of what?

     Without warning, Ben got to his feet.

     “He said he’d cut me,” Jute blurted.

     Ben slowly sat down, his expression slowly darkening.

     “Look, he’s all wind,” Jute pleaded.

     Ben didn’t answer; he simply sat and took thought. He suddenly stood up and went over to a file cabinet, rummaged about and finally fetched out a fat file folder. He came back with the file and sat down. He had only talked to Valumfree once. He read bit of the file.

     “Look, I have to be able to tell you things,” Jute pleaded.

     Ben read a bit more of the file, then looked up. “You need to get out,” Ben said quietly.

     A threat to cut an inmate man by another inmate was a very serious matter. Ben now wanted to ensure that the threat had been made, and if it had, he would then call a custody guard and have Valumfree put in isolation for two weeks to a month. He’d keep Jute in the background as he asked questions. If Tim didn’t remember threatening Jute, he would rebuke Malumphy for being a bully and dismiss him.

     Ben quickly got to his feet and stalked stiffly to the door of the big center room outside. He was so tense that he could hardly bend at the knee.

   “Valumfree!” he shouted.

     No sign of Valumfree. Ben stood out in the big, brightly-lit Diagnostic Center, with its crowded benches, its knots of talking, brown-clad officers drinking coffee. It was then Ben spotted Malumphy over in a far corner, talking casually.

     “Valumfree!” Ben said loudly. Valumfree took no notice of him at all. Ben was stung. “Valumfree!” he shouted. The enraged shout startled the inmates and the custody guards. It was like the sharp rapping of a conductor’s baton before the performance of a symphony.   The din began to die out as hard, tanned, puzzled faces turned towards him.

     “What do you want?” said a spoiled, languid voice.

     Ben was furious. “Get in here,” he yelled.

     “I’m talking to Mickey,” Valumfree said.

     “VALUMFREE, GODDAM IT!” Ben was about to shout again, when he saw Valumfree disengage and start to amble slowly across the glossy floor. He was a furtive, short, slight figure dressed in blue denims and wearing black, dull, prison shoes. He saw Valumfree had a weakly handsome face with small, gray shifty eyes. He was in his early thirties. As the inmate sat down, he acted very put-upon. At Ben’s order, he grudgingly got up and went and closed the office door. As he watched Valumfree take a seat, and Ben instantly saw that the inmate was unsociable, ill-humored and haughty. “What do you want?” the inmate said.

     “Why do you threaten people?” Ben’s brown eyes fixed the inmate with a piercing stare. The file lay open on the desk.

     Valumfree stared back at him, insolent and smug. Ben didn’t have the time for this. “You act like a bullying, little wart. Is that what you really are? A bully?”

     Valumfree looked at Ben Falls a moment, amused, “What’s that supposed to do? Crush me like a cockroach? What did I do now? Offend some fucking road kill in the Yard?” It was all said in a grating, high-pitched voice. ”Don’t you think I know how the game is played in here; huh? I mean in here a guy has got to show some heart. If people jam you, you jam right back.”

     Self-satisfied, he ceased.

     Ben eyed him. Valumfree had a round head with very close-cropped, receding black hair with a round head that sharply tapered down to his mouth. His face displayed an off-putting, disagreeable, malformed look. With the energy of annoyance, Ben began to aggressively rifle through the file he’d taken out. Ben found his place in the file and looked up. “You may talk about being a man with plenty of heart, but you didn’t display much heart when you arrived. You didn’t jam right back when you got here.”      

     “You weren’t here when I got here,” Valumfree said.

     Ben could be patient, but he would not brook insolence. “It’s here in the file, so don’t act so tough. I have an interview here where you complained of being anally raped. You asked to be removed from the general population for your own safety.”

     “That’s bullshit,” the seated figure burst out. “Do you believe everything you read?”

     “ Do you want me to read it aloud?” Ben said.

     Valumfree didn’t like that. “Hey, listen, I don’t care if you do. It’s bullshit! It’s bull shit even if I said it. Maybe I hadn’t caught on yet that how fucking rotten this place is. Maybe I was soft then. Maybe then I was a rabbit. But, I’m not soft now, and I know the goddamn score.”

   “Why don’t you tell me what the score is,” Ben asked him.

     Valumfree didn’t reply but sat glowering and insolent. “Give me a break,” he said, looking off.

     “Tell me what the score is, Valumfree. I have other people to see,” Ben said.

     “Hey, you’re supposed to be so smart. You know as well as me what the score is. The only reason you don’t mess with someone in here is because you’ll be messed with right back. Back then, maybe I hadn’t learned that yet.”

     “You learned what now?”

     “That either you had stand up for yourself or you you’d end up being someone’s rabbit before you could blink. Like this guy in my tier. He’s doing time for some punk-ass white-collar rip off, and I took some law books out of his cell, and what does he do? I’ll tell you what he did. Nothing! Instead, he’s fucking friendly to me afterwards, can you believe that? Just as nice. So right then, I knew he was a rabbit. Shit, a righteous motherfucker would have broken my head open. He would have hit or stabbed me when I wasn’t looking.

     “I mean he knows I stole his books, but he just says he doesn’t want any trouble. I mean, he’s a punk, a dumb, pussy ass. Because he’s gotta know that if I stole his books I’m coming after his ass next, right? I’ve already told him that him and me, we’re forming a partnership. If he’s a good little rabbit, then I won’t push too hard. If he bucks, I’m going to ride him.” Valumfree grinned his evil, pickerel grin. “That’s how it is with rabbits. You ever wonder what they’re good for and why God made them?”

     “Why is that?” But to Ben, the word “stabbed” put him on high alert.

     “Because they’re food! And what the fuck do you care anyway?” he said. “You’re a chump, or you wouldn’t be here letting these assholes cry on your shoulder all the time.”

     It was a direct insult. “You mean me?”

     “I don’t see anyone else sitting there,” Valumfree smirked.

   Ben locked his eyes in the inmate’s eyes because he suddenly had this thought: What was this man’s arrogance and hostility based on? Where was it weak? But he was saying, “If I hear of you molesting other inmates or trying to turn them into rabbits, I’ll make sure you get two weeks in Solitary.” He meant it.

         “Oh, yeah? And one day you’ll get it crossing the Yard,” Valumfree said carelessly, looking off.

   The room was still as a corpse. For a moment, a glacial fear which stifled every thought and feeling took possession of Ben’s soul, but it instantly passed away. Ben had no idea that Malumphy would threaten his life; He had not been prepared for that at all.

     “What did you say?” Ben asked him.

   “I said I’m not someone to kick around.”

     “That’s not what you said.”

     Valumfree glowered, silent.

     “You realize you just threatened me,” Ben said evenly.

     “Boo, hoo,” Valumfree said.

     Ben was suddenly in a rage, he couldn’t see straight, but then, full of revulsion, Ben said, “You pick on the weak, which is what a coward does,” and he declared that if Valumfree ever threatened another inmate, Ben would make sure his cooking and exercise yard privileges were revoked, and when Valumfree mumbled something, he unleashed on the inmate such a torrent of brutal, slicing words and then ordered him out, and Valumfree, a sick white, went out of his office like a kicked dog.

     But at the moment, Ben was suffering a bad case of the shakes. He couldn’t keep is hands still and couldn’t take a deep breath. He was frightfully pale.

     Jute came back in. Ben was sitting, still trying very hard to control the shakes in his hands. He took deep breaths, feeling the agreeable sensations of a man who had just parried a threat to his life. Of course, Valumfree might still try to stab him somewhere in the Yard if he was off guard.

     “He doesn’t remember he threatened you,” Ben told Jute.

     “I thought you were going to hit him.”’

     “So did I,” said Ben. His hands were still shaking.

     “Christ,” said Jute. He was shaken too. “Someday you’re going to get me killed.”

     “I won’t have any of us threatened,” Ben said flatly.

     Their feelings were distracted when Dave Jenson, personable younger officer who performed educational tests on the inmates suddenly put his head in. “Sorry to interrupt,” he said to Ben. “You’re up, man.”

     “Up? What do you mean I’m up? Up where?” Ben asked.

     “The old man wants you.”

     Ben was annoyed and disconcerted. “What the hell does he want?”

     “Who the fuck knows?”

     Ben looked aggrieved.

     “He wants to see you about something — like right now. You know how he’s like. He’s bringing some stupid reporter in here from EPOCH Magazine.”

     “A reporter? Shields hates reporters!”

     “I guess he likes this one.  The fucking guy is about to arrive.”

    “What? You mean today?”

     “I think so.”   

     “Oh, fuck! Are you serious?”

     “I’d get up there if I were you. He’s very edgy today,” Jenson said 

     “Shit! Fuck! Screw!” Ben was like a little kid cursing. A look of  savage vexation spread over his face at the thought of having to be patient and attentive and pleasant this early in the morning. Meanwhile, Jenson left.

     The phone trilled.

     “I’ll get that?” Jute said.

     “Assholes. Who’d be calling now, for God’s sake?” Ben practically shouted.

     “I’ll get it,” Jute said, picking up the receiver. “Yes?” His face changed. “Yes, he is.” He held out the phone to Ben, his face expressionless.

     Ben was mouthing, “If it’s Branscom or some idiot, I’m not here.”

     “Take it,” Jute said in a flat tone.

     Ben looked at him.  

     “You’re one and only,” Jute said. He went out, closing the door.

     “Ben Falls,” he said. He sounded very stiff and official.

     “Are you okay?” It was her voice, soft, husky. He felt a sudden hitch. “I’ve got to go to a meeting in a minute, but I wanted to call you,” she said.

     “Well, I’m here,” he said without expression. He had vowed to be stonily unforgiving.

  “I’m sorry.” There was sincere feeling in her voice.

    “I just don’t understand how these things happen,” he said with resentment, but already his heavy, abject misery begin to lift from his heart.

     “Look’ I love you so much,” she said. “I just wanted you to know that. I love you more than anything else in my life.”

     Instantly, he felt touched and conquered.

     “Well, I love you too.”

     “You are everything good and precious in my life. I was thinking that in the car.”

     “Well, you are in mine,” he said.

   “I just wish you wouldn’t get so mad at me.”

     “Do you really think I’m selfish and lazy? That I wouldn’t bother to feed you?” he said.  “

     A red, sweaty face appeared in the door, a custody officer.

     “I have to go. I do love you.”

   They traded brief, affectionate goodbyes until the officer cleared his throat, and the two lovers finally hung up. When Jute came in, he said, “Della just called from the Old Man. How’s you’re one and only?”

       “She’s okay, I’ll go up front right away.”

     “You’ve got Haines, remember,” Jute reminded him.

       “I know. Watch things will you?”

     “At nine thirty,” Jute said.

     But Ben had bustled out the door.

     Jute shook his head in disbelief. His boss had come in that morning so utterly damaged and dazed, that you could have led him to a precipice and pushed him over it. But after only a few words from her, he melted meekly like a piece of candy on a hot plate. Jute shook his head. “Love,” he thought. A man should be vaccinated against love the way you would vaccinate him against polio.

     He had no sooner left than Malumphy came in, nervous and flinching. “Is he gone?” he asked, glancing about, thoroughly unnerved.

     “He’ll be right back,” Jute warned.

     Malumpy, however, was rattled. “Jesus, Christ, did you hear him? Holy shit! He was trying to nail my ass to the wall! He was going to send me to Isolation. Did you see that? Did you hear him threaten me?”

     “Hear who?” Jute was all innocence.

     “Your stupid boss! I mean, he was really chewing on me. What the hell did he have for breakfast?” Malumphy was still pale and entirely scared.

     Jute thought a moment, then looked up happily and grinned. “You,” he said.

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3 Responses to “Valumfree” by Richard Sale

  1. Richard! I hope the novel is finished by you!

  2. Ed Walsh says:

    You get points for taking on description of people on the margin of society, and for telling your story through their words, rather than via a narrator.
    I don’t feel I have seen enough character development to find any of these characters believable, or even sympathetic — as in: I really care what happens to them. Not saying they cannot be believable, nor that someone like Ben could not be sympathetic. Just not enough development to cross some boundary in my mind.
    In particular, I could not accept the sequence of emotions that Ben displayed, seemingly seriously on his guard about Malumphy’s danger to him, then recklessly provoking him, then emotionally overcome by the realization of his danger. The progression seemed out of order and badly paced.
    The presentation itself seems on edge (that is to say the author’s attitude toward his own characters and their situation). In some ways that seems entirely appropriate. The characters seem to live on the edge (so sorry, but I lack a referent: edge of what? I don’t know.) But I experienced this edginess when reading that segment. I was uncomfortable. Maybe you intend that. Maybe you never thought how a reader may react. I am just telling you what I can.
    If you are going to make me suffer, you had better give me redemption, some cathartic release. This kind of comment supposes you are writing according to a plan. Maybe you don’t write that way. Is every sentence a surprise to you? If you have a plan, it is apparent that you will have to maintain this uncomfortable tension for a good part of the story. Is this tension as central to the entire story as it is in this piece?
    That exhausts the data for which this is an analysis. From this point on I just have questions and speculations. Hope this helps.

  3. Richard Sale says:

    It does.

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