Sunrise, Sunset

A steel cage divides the room. His is the side with no exit. My responsibility is to watch him, to make sure he doesn’t kill himself with that spoon he eats his roast pork supper with. I note in the log book that he is indeed eating his supper, evidence he’s abandoned his hunger strike.

The nurse in the powder-blue scrubs asked me how long I’ve been a suicide watch companion and I told her three years, though this inflates my experience somewhat. I’ve only served on two watches. One was for a chronic masturbator who stared at me from beneath his smock and pulled his dick out every time the nurse came by to dispense his meds. The other man paced for much of my four-hour shift, stopping only once to knock on the partition and ask how much I was getting paid to watch him. I told him four dollars, and he laughed. He said that inmate companions at his last prison got paid ten.

Neither inmate tried anything. Both watches were uneventful, which is preferable when you’re trying to prevent someone from drowning himself in the toilet, which happens of course. In training they recount the many gruesomely clever ways inmates have killed themselves in the past, from hanging themselves from the overhead light to swallowing thick wads of pulpy toilet paper. One man removed a metal slat from the watch room’s air vent and used it to slash his wrists. But drowning in a toilet is the worst, I think. There isn’t much water in those prison commodes. You’d have to really get your head down in there good and deep. And that stainless steel is cold.

Right now it isn’t the toilet that’s making me nervous but the spoon, one of those beige plastic kinds they pass out in the chow hall with the deep bowl that doesn’t quite form to the mouth, so that you have to turn it upside down and use your tongue to get it clean. Admittedly he seems more intent on eating than he does on killing himself, and justly so. According to the log book this is the first meal in two days that he hasn’t refused. He sits on the edge of the plastic tamper-proof mattress, shoveling spoonfuls of pork and slick yellow onions into his mouth. He’s an older man, mid-fifties. His face is pleasantly bland. The smock he wears reveals a broad chest of graying hairs, fat shapeless arms. His exposed knees look small and vulnerable, a young boy’s knees. He makes quick work of his meal, eating everything including the two slices of wheat bread, and sets the empty tray, along with the potentially deadly spoon, on the floor beside the cage door.

A corrections officer comes to sign the log book and collect the tray. The man says he needs toilet paper. The CO begins unraveling a few squares, and the man’s face sours. He says he needs to shit. He promises not to kill himself with the roll.

If he’s embarrassed, if he feels at all violated having to shit in the presence of other men, he doesn’t let on. There is, I suppose, a certain dignity in the factual way he swabs the seat first, the way he lifts the back of his smock as though he were a concert pianist flicking aside his coattails before settling on the bench. If anything it is I who am ashamed, my youth offended. I watch him, because I have to, and thus observe my future self: the doughy arms, the dark downturned nipples, the little boy knees and gray toes. Strange how not just the pate but the entire male body balds—once a peach, now a nectarine, slick and prone to bruising. I’d sooner kill myself than shit in front of an audience.

When it’s over, mercifully over, he passes the roll back to the CO and the cage is again locked. The officer leaves. I note in the log book: “Defecated.”

For the next hour the man’s attempts at sleep are stymied by the fluorescents, which are kept at surgical-room brightness twenty-four-seven. He flops beneath the stiff blanket, flings one arm over his face. At one point he shimmies out of his smock and folds it over his eyes. It doesn’t help. Sleeplessness finally prompts him to speak.

“I’m sorry to bore you,” he says, eyes covered, to the ceiling.

“I’m sorry I have to watch you . . . ” take a shit is what I want to say but shouldn’t presume humor. In training we’re encouraged to talk to our fellow inmate, ask him unimposing questions, walk him through his problems and possible solutions (apart from ending his life), and to nod every now and then and say things like “I see” and “Wow, that must be really frustrating.” This is called “active listening.”

“What dorm are you in?” the man asks.

“Sunrise. You?”

“I live in Sunset. I couldn’t tell if I recognized you. They took my glasses.”

“Wow, that must be really frustrating.” I click my pen nervously. “Are you from around here, Epson?”

“My name is Epstein.”

I check the log book. “It seems they’ve written it down wrong.”

“Yeah, the nurse keeps calling me Epson and Eppins. I told her it’s Epstein—Epstein. It’s Jewish. My family lives in Tampa, but I’m originally from New York.”

“What a coincidence,” I say a little too loudly. “I grew up in Brooklyn. Sheepshead Bay. My mother’s Italian.”

“We lived in the Bronx. We were surrounded by Italians. Someone was always bringing over a coffee cake or cannoli. I don’t know why anyone bothered having couches or living rooms when they never left the kitchen.”

It’s true. I can’t recall ever sitting in my grandmother’s living room.

“Do you have much time left, Epstein?”

“About two years,” he says readjusting the smock over his eyes.

“That’s good.”

He huffs. “I’ll be fifty-eight when I get out of prison. I’ll be old and unemployable. There aren’t many companies hiring fifty-eight-year-old ex-felons. Too afraid we might die, retire, or otherwise rob the place.”

“Ageism,” I say unhelpfully.

“Pardon?”

“No, I mean, we live in a very ageist society, don’t we? Utility is measured in youth. My father is in his seventies and has an awful time changing jobs. The workforce demands fresh blood, fresh energy, fresh ideas.” I’m terrible at this. I have no good news for this man. To lie to him would be to lie to myself. “So what kind of work did you do out there?”

“I sold construction equipment. Made good money, too. I had it all going for me,” he says replaying it beneath the smock. “I had a beautiful wife, a beautiful daughter, a beautiful home on a cul-de-sac. A pool. Granite countertops and stainless steel appliances in the kitchen.” He laughs. “We even had a German shepherd.”

“Very American dream. I bet you had a grill, too.”

He waggles his bare feet. “It was huge—massive—propane with six burners.”

“Six! And you had the rotisserie attachment, I’m sure.”

“And a smoker,” he says. “We threw these great block parties. We’d close off the cul-de-sac with tables, and every neighbor brought a dish. I did all the grilling. The kids had a blast running around in the street.” He sobers a bit at the mention of kids.

“Did you appreciate it at the time?”

“No,” he says. “Not at the time.”

At quarter to nine the CO returns to sign the log book and to make sure I haven’t fallen asleep and that my subject isn’t dead. We snuff our conversation like two boys at a sleepover when the grownups knock.

Are you still married, Epstein?” I ask after the CO leaves.

“On paper, anyway.” He pulls the smock off his face, clasps his hands behind his head and continues to stare at the ceiling. “First name’s Paul, by-the-way.”

“Paul, you said you have a daughter?”

“She’s twelve. A competitive dancer. She’s been dancing since she was four.” She’s dancing now, on the ceiling, pirouetting in silver leggings, butterfly combs in her hair, a single runaway strand kissing her strawberry-glossed lips. “I haven’t seen her in four years, since I’ve been locked up. She and my wife were supposed to visit me back when I was in Oakdale. Then my transfer came up. Instead of sending me closer to home they sent me here to Texas—500 miles farther from my family. I told Dr. Dearborn, ‘That’s it! I give up. I’m not eating. I’ll just starve and wither away.'”

Spoken like a true Jew.

“The captain said if I don’t eat soon he’d hook me up to feeding tubes and write me a shot. Can you believe that? I want to end my life and he’s threatening to take away my commissary privileges, so I won’t be able to spend $4.40 on a six-pack of Coke. Please.”

“You’re a liability to him. That’s what this is for,” I say holding up the log book.

“Are you writing this down?”

“Just the generals. How many burners did you say that grill had again? Six?”

“Yeah. And make sure you put down that I said the captain is a schmuck.” He thinks for a moment. “Dr. Dearborn—she’s nice. She seems to genuinely care. But that Dr. Blatt I can’t stand. She went rifling through my locker and was positively gleeful when she found my pros-and-cons list, like she’d caught me red-handed. She thought she’d found a suicide note.”

“What list?”

Paul sighs. “Back in Oakdale, when I was depressed, the psychologist had me make a list of pros and cons.”

“Of killing yourself?”

“No, no. It was a list of positives and negatives, the good and the bad of life in general. On one side I wrote my wife and daughter, and on the other I listed my cons.” He demonstrates the length of these grievances by drawing a vertical line through the air from the apex of his reach to his blanketed lap. “The point of the exercise was to realize that even though they were outnumbered, my family still outweighed the bad. At least they did.”

Keys jangle from somewhere down the hall. The CO, or maybe the nurse, is making the nightly rounds, patrolling the halls, jiggling door knobs. A radio bleeps a watery transmission: all is secure.

“I had a nice life once,” I say after the keys are gone. “I was newly graduated, had a great job making good money. I had an apartment with a view of the city. I had a grill, too. A little rooftop portable. Charcoal. No burners.”

“Sounds nice.”

I drum my pen against the log book, which I’ve ceased writing in. I used to feel my life was on track, everything falling into place like a line of shiny black domino. The physics of success seemed fixed and irrepressible. It took only one misaligned tile to throw the whole chain off. Stop it dead.

“Paul, are you scared of getting out of prison? Some guys say they’re more scared of getting out than they were going in.” I’ve seen men come back. They leave and then a month later I see them on the yard or in the chapel. They come up and say hello, shake my hand, smile shyly. The odds are against us.

“I wouldn’t say I’m scared so much as wary,” Paul says. “I don’t want to be a burden on my family.”

“God knows I’ve burdened mine enough as it is. I’ll be thirty-four when I get out and starting my life from scratch. I’ll be broke, unemployed, and have no place to live. I called an old high school friend the other day and heard some screaming kid in the background. I thought, Jesus, she’s a wife now, a mother. What am I?”

Paul raises his head and looks at me for the first time through the steel lattice. “Thirty-four? You’ll still be a young man. You’ll have plenty of time to rebuild your life. You’ll be fine. Do good in here, and you’ll do good out there.”

“Shouldn’t I be the one encouraging you?”

He smirks and lays his head back down.

“Hey, what were those other things you wrote down on your list—the cons?”

Paul closes his eyes and sighs that fatalistic sigh that reminds me of warm kitchens and coffee cake. “Too many to list, my friend.”

At the end of my shift, at ten o’clock, the CO comes to relieve me. He’ll continue to monitor Paul through the night and into the morning, until the next inmate companion arrives. The nurse says she’ll escort me back to my dorm. As I’m leaving, Paul calls out to me from the cage. “Don’t forget your coat.”

Outside the night is cold and starless. Floodlights hover high above our heads like airships tethered to the earth by black threads. The yard glows orange, the nurse’s scrubs lavender. I get nervous around female officers. I sense their fingers poised over the call button on their radios.

She comments on the wind—it’s really picked up.

We walk through the deserted prison, past the shuttered commissary and mailroom, past the laundry department with the small side window where we exchange our towels and washcloths four days a week. Ahead of us loom two long stretches of buildings, like ships rising from black still waters, their hulls dotted with yellow twinkling portholes. The nurse begins to ask which dorm is mine but stumbles over my name.

“It’s okay,” I reassure her. “A lot of people have trouble with it.”

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Turbine Cowboy

An ice storm bowled through the Permian Basin earlier this month downing telephone lines in nearby Midland, stranding motorists along I-20, and temporarily disabling the perimeter motion sensors here at the prison. We spent the better part of three days shuttered in our dorms sleeping, shooting spades, speculating on the weather, placing desperate phone calls to the outside world we couldn’t afford (our own lines held firm). Not that we had anything to talk about, not to our families, certainly not to each other. After the Mexicans had exhausted all politics and gossip, they took to wrestling beneath my bunk. Their limbs struck the underside of my bed, jouncing my biography of John Adams. One man successfully connected his groin with another man’s face and asked him, tauntingly, what it smelled like.

On the second evening of the lockdown, Willy pulled out his photo album. It was not a typical photo album. Its pages were filled not with pictures of children, friends, or family but of stuff—Escalades, fur coats, jewelry, women. It looked like a Robb Report. Curiously, the environs didn’t match the glamour of the subject matter. The luxury cars were parked in front of a dilapidated house, the fur coats were draped over an outmoded floral-print sofa, the women, drawn and glassy-eyed, were draped over a sagging bed. I recalled Willy explaining once the need to keep two houses in his line of work, one on the good side of town in which to live and another on the bad side, near his customers, from which to conduct business.

The Mexicans, tired from wrestling, settled around Willy’s bunk. They pointed at the album, reminisced. “I had me some Vogues like that, too. Gold. Twelve spokes.”

By the third afternoon the weather had cleared and the compound was reopened. Outside on the rec yard the sleet was just beginning to thaw. The concertina wire dripped and shimmered. At the top of the hill, near the gym, I watched a man share his bag of vanilla wafers with the pigeons. Beside the chapel I collected ice shards like matchsticks from the chain link fence and rolled them around in the palm of my glove.

I’d forgotten how gloves have the niggling effect of blunting out the world, making one feel like an insect without his antennae. The last time I wore gloves was when I was a young boy living in the panhandle, bundled in a blue oversized Dallas Cowboys jacket, moling through the snowdrifts that accumulated between our house and the neighbor’s. The coat was a Christmas gift from my grandmother in New York who believed, not incorrectly, that all Texans adored football, the Cowboys especially. For years that coat unwillingly marked me a fan of a sport I happened to loath. Classmates, adults, strangers would single me out for my take on how the season was progressing: Would Troy Aikman recover from that nasty knee injury? Would the Cowboys make it to this year’s Super Bowl? The worst was when some obnoxious child tried to berate my team. “The Cowboys suck!” he might say, to which I, swathed in blue and silver, would shrug unperturbed.

My gloves, these I have now, are actually linemen’s gloves. Mr. Jones gave each of his wind farming students a pair for Christmas, along with foam ear plugs. The prison demands that every inmate either take on a job or enroll in a vocation. Wind farming was not my first choice. Neither the library nor the chapel were hiring, so I signed up for computer aided drafting. That class, however, was repealed over concerns that we might use our newly acquired skills to design and fabricate a device to assist us in escaping. Before I could choose an alternative, the staff assigned me to the first available job opening—general maintenance.

“But I’ve never maintained anything in my life,” I told the foreman.

“Have you ever seen a paint brush?”

I nodded, and thus he placed one in my hand.

My first project (and last, incidentally) was painting the maintenance shop. Helping me in this endeavor was an afflicted man named Gary, from Tucson, who apologized beforehand that he’d likely forget my name. “My short-term memory has been fucked up,” he said, “ever since I got shot in the face with a .38.” Indeed, his face was terribly skewed. One eye was gone completely.

For reasons I wasn’t told, one of the shop’s walls was to be painted in a checkerboard, brown on white. To avoid getting in each other’s way we decided to start at opposite ends of the wall and meet in the middle. Despite my reluctance, the work was deeply absorbing and scratched a creative itch that had long laid dormant since my days as a web designer. It also resurfaced fond memories of my first apartment in the city, the rooms of which I’d painted in various shades of blue—”Oxbow” in the bathroom, “China Tureen” in the kitchen. For the bedroom I chose a dark slate with a green shift called “Beguile.” My neighbor, who I was dating at the time, remarked it was an apt choice, particularly for a bedroom.

It was in this romantic vein, lost amid alternating brown and white patches (and possibly affected by paint fumes), that I began to mine a fantasy of a future in acrylics. I would impress the foreman with my masterfully concealed brushstrokes, my careful cutting in, my keen awareness of light and value. He’d entrust me with more significant projects—refreshing the chow hall’s sallow walls, re-stenciling the red OUT OF BOUNDS warnings on the perimeter sidewalks. Eventually he’d ask me to contribute an original art piece, a sports-themed mural to go alongside the cigar-chomping pool shark painted above the rec center’s fireplace.

But then the efforts of our individual labors converged in the middle of the wall and it became clear that neither of us held any future in painting. Gary was the first to notice it. He sat his brush down and stood back to take in the full effect of our mistake with his one good eye. Our checkerboards didn’t match up. Our brown and white squares, had we finished, would have met as rectangles.

Fortunately Joe informed me of an opening in his wind farming class. I immediately enrolled. The three-month course, contracted through a local community college, teaches inmates the basic principles of wind technology, a fast-growing industry, especially here in West Texas.

Doubts about my suitability for wind farming began to creep in during the first week of class when Mr. Jones, a bearded man with Popeye arms and meaty hands weathered from decades of climbing wind turbines, demonstrated how to properly wear a safety harness. It looked like a dream catcher with buckles, something I’d surely get tangled in. “You want to make sure all these straps are tight, these here especially,” Jones said pointing to the nylon loops that secured his buttocks and ample crotch. “You don’t want to take a fall with these hanging loose. You’ll tear your shit clean off.”

Mr. Jones had requested a ladder for the classroom, so we could get a feel for climbing in full gear, but the prison, for obvious reasons, was unwilling to give inmates a ladder.

Once we had familiarized ourselves with harnesses and trauma suspension straps (a cord that allows you to stand in midair after a fall to relieve circulation in the legs so you don’t pass out), we advanced to OSHA training, a three-day marathon of safety videos designed to inform as much as scare the shit out of us. The videos warned of every peril from compressed gas to improperly stored chemicals to the dangers of failing to wear appropriate personal protection equipment. As a web designer the only thing I had feared was carpal tunnel. In one gruesome reenactment, a woman gets her engagement ring caught on a moving assembly line, tears her finger clean off, just what Mr. Jones said would happen to our franks and beans if our harnesses weren’t sufficiently tightened. Nursing her still-bloodied stump, the woman laments that if she’d only complied with her company’s safety policy prohibiting jewelry she’d still be wearing her engagement ring on her left hand instead of on her right.

I finally conceded to any future in wind farming after watching Turbine Cowboys, a reality television show produced by the Weather Channel that follows the high-drama, high-stakes world of turbine repair, which the narrator never failed to remind us is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. In one episode a man repels over a nacelle to patch a cracked turbine blade at 400 feet in the air. In another segment a turbine goes AWOL when its braking mechanism malfunctions amid fierce winds. The blades rev so fast that for a moment they appear to be moving backwards before centrifugal force rips them from the hub and catapults them into the next county. All that’s left is the tower looking like a trampled dandelion stalk. I turned to give Joe a look but he was asleep in his seat.

At least we got a pair of gloves out of it.

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The Ball Drops

In the final month of the new year the frosting on the cake got a little thicker, the fries a little crisper, the portions more generous. The mustard, usually doled out by the teaspoon, gained its very own spot on the cold bar, right next to the macaroni salad, allowing us to grab as much as we liked for our hamburgers.

When the Suits come for their annual inspection, food improves, shower stalls get fixed, walls get patched and repainted, light bulbs get replaced, all to give the impression that this is how it always is. For our part we eat our fill of cake and mustard and stay out of the way. That is the deal.

Most insulting is when the counselor breezes through the dorm ahead of the Suits spraying apple-cinnamon Glade to mask our farts, sweat, and animal-sleep. She smiles as she does this, embarrassed. The Suits arrive soon after looking like an ad for the Men’s Warehouse and smelling of Burberry. We get quiet; the teacher has stepped back inside the classroom. “Good morning, gentleman.” They peck their way through the rows of towering bunk beds, hands clasped behind their backs, looking up, looking down. And before the Glade has settled to the floor they are gone. What did they see? What impressions did they draw from five minutes? Presumably they approved: the walls were standing, the roof hadn’t caved in. All’s well. Send in some more. And indeed another bus does come bearing more souls, three days before Christmas.

It was rumored we’d see fireworks this New Year’s Eve. The guys who were here last year said there’d been a display on the eastern outskirts of town. Joe scanned the horizon from the barred window above his bed but said he saw nothing out there except the winking lights of grain silos, water towers and of the lone wind turbine out in front of the prison that seems never to spin. I think they were pulling our legs about the fireworks.

Last year in Mississippi I allowed myself to be wrangled into Steve’s room for a 2013 farewell. He had just finished a quart of hooch and was lit up like the ball in Times Square. Originally from Maine, Steve was one of a few Yankees on a compound overrun with southern boys, which might explain why he took a liking to me, as I myself am a Yankee, Brooklyn-bred. In the free world he’d been a tattoo artist, a trade he continued to pursue in prison. His room smelled perpetually of burning hemorrhoid cream, the soot of which he’d mix with his ink to make it darker. His most distinctive tattoo was one of a stick figure pushing a lawn mower across his balding pate.

“You smoke cigarettes out there in the world?” Steve pulled a fold of paper smaller than a postage stamp from his pocket. Some state joints still sell tobacco, but not the feds. In federal prison, one obtains tobacco as he does any contraband—an outside visitor, a package tossed over the fence, or, common enough, through a rogue cop. One chaplain in Mississippi was discovered selling cigarettes and dope to inmates in exchange for sex. Twice I witnessed an officer spitting snuff in the grass outside the commissary, this despite tobacco being prohibited on prison grounds. Inmates have been known to collect these deposits along with discarded spit cups dug from the trash. They dry the tobacco and sell it to willing customers for good money. A spit-arette, they call it.

Steve emptied the brown shavings, hardly a thimble’s worth, onto a scrap of toilet paper wrapper and, with a few deft movements of his fingers, rolled himself a tidy little joint thin as a lollipop stick. He lit it with a double A battery and took a long, intense drag.

“Want a hit?” He held the cigarette out and I noted the blood on his knuckles. His locker had jammed earlier, inciting a drunken riot of punches and two or three kicks. Now open, the locker door was so badly dented that it refused to close at all, though Steve seemed not to notice, or care.

“I’m good,” I said, declining the cigarette.

Even sober Steve had a tendency to tell the same stories. I’d heard of many of his capers but listened politely as he regaled again the time he and his old lady ripped off a Sam’s Club. The clerk manning the exit had forgotten to validate their receipt. So he and his wife went back inside, filled a flatbed with all the same purchases—which included a desktop computer and printer—and walked out of the store, flashing the same receipt. Had the clerk not marked it then they might have gone back through a third time.

The radio that evening, in sympathy to those left stranded on New Year’s Eve, had been playing a mix of better times and foregone love. By chance, it was during “Original Sin” that Steve reached over and began to stroke my arm.

“You’re growing a beard,” he observed.

“Just thought I’d try something different. I’ll probably shave it off soon. It’s starting to get itchy.”

“I like it. It suits you. Very becoming.” He cocked his head and smiled, eyes bleary from the booze. “You’re a hairy guy, aren’t you?”

“I hate it. I’m losing hair where I want hair and growing hair where there shouldn’t be any. Hey, listen. Have you eaten? I still got a bagel in my Christmas bag. I was gonna make myself a pizza. We could split it.”

He took another drag with his free hand. “Nah,” he said, exhaling. The smoke unspooled from his nose like a blue spirit and settled in his mustache. “You don’t mind my touching you, do you?”

The cell was blotted with haze.

“No,” I lied. He was drunk and capable of violence; I thought it best to keep cautiously amenable.

“You’re a good kid,” he said. “I look out for you. You know that, don’t you?” His rough thumb, the nail stained black with ink, crept its way around to the tender white of my underarm, just tickling my pit hairs. “You know I look out for you?”

I nodded.

“No you don’t.” He pitched the dying ember in the toilet. “I know you’re messing with that black guy, what’s his name—Elijah?”

I nodded again. No use denying it.

“The white guys are talking about it. But I set them straight. I tell them you’re a good kid. ‘He’s a good kid,’ I say. ‘Just rumors,’ I tell them. I look out for you, you understand?”

“I understand.”

Outside in the day room the Mexicans were yipping and whistling at one of their telenovellas. Some Latin beauty had just been kissed or ravaged, or slapped by a jealous rival.

“Fuck ‘em.” He pulled his hand away suddenly, likely out of the sobering fear that someone walking by might peek in and witness his caresses. “Bunch of rednecks. I’d fight any one of them. All of them. Fuck. I don’t care. I don’t mind if you play with Elijah. I don’t mind if you play with a black dude.”

Steve’s eyes focused momentarily. “I don’t care if you play with me,” he said.

Later I was awakened at midnight by the thunder of a hundred men beating on their cell doors. The ball had dropped. Their furor and fury reverberated through the walls and floor, through steel and stone, reaching a frequency that countered my trembling heart and resonated with my fear.

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Christmas Bags

Ask Joe how much time he has left and he might tell you 192 burgers—that’s a burger for every Wednesday left in his bid. The math is the same for fish patties, which are served for lunch every Friday. But Joe prefers to measure his remaining sentence not in burgers or fish but in Christmas bags. He’ll see four more holiday goodie bags before his release. I myself have six bags left to serve. (That’s roughly 264 burgers—more jail-grade beef than I care to consider.)

There was speculation over the size of this year’s bag. They trend smaller with each season. One veteran inmate here remembers when the bags used to be this big—he spreads his arms wide enough to wrestle a doberman, which seems exaggerated.

The sacks were passed out by COs from the back of a truck parked in front of the chow hall. Some of the women officers wore Santa hats. To everyone’s relief, the bags were the same size as last year’s, say this big—I spread my hands wide enough to snatch a maltese.

One man missed his bag because he was taking a shit. He stepped out of the bathroom, still drying his hands, to find the whole floor empty. Everyone gone. Poor soul. Someone said he’d been talking about that bag since Thanksgiving. He went to the CO nearly in tears. The CO radioed the Captain, the Captain called the Assistant Warden, a Hispanic woman, whose response was, allegedly, “Well, I guess he chose the wrong time to take a shit.” Eventually he got his bag, after waiting nearly an hour for all the other inmates to be served.

Inside the bags were all manner of treats: cookies, popcorn, M&Ms (with or without peanuts), “fun-sized” Snickers, chips, Cheese-Its, crackers, chewy Lemonheads, and a single cinnamon-raisin bagel.

“Bagel! Bagel!” cried Joe pushing through the rows of bunks, waving the cellophane package. Others swapped their packet of Maxwell House instant coffee for red-hots, chocolate milk for graham crackers. Perez in the lower bunk beside mine traded me his chili-lime tortilla chips for my Frosted Flakes. He said it had been years since he’d eaten his favorite cereal. He even offered to throw in a package of Grandma’s chocolate brownie cookies, but I declined and took only the chips, which were tart and spicy and delicious and burned my tongue so bad that I had to dip into my vanilla pudding cup to cool my tongue.

Meanwhile on the second floor Christmas bags were selling for two “books,” that’s ten stamps or eight dollars. Someone will squirrel away his bag and come February hustle it for twenty bucks. For many, prison is just a continuation of street life.

I’ve always appreciated and looked forward to the Christmas bags, but every year eating from them makes me feel like Blanche Dubois, helpless to the kindness of strangers. The pleasure of licking the salt and sugar from my fingers stings my pride as much as the chili-lime chips burn my tongue. It’s the same sting I feel when I check my account and find that my father, unannounced and unsolicited, has posted another hundred dollars to my books.

But Joe is right. A few Christmas bags ain’t nothing. Another bag down, six more to go.

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Running Solo

I made three mistakes within my first twenty-four hours of arriving in Big Spring. My first offense was pissing in the toilet. We do not do this. We do not piss in the toilet. We piss in the urinals. Toilets are for shitting in, except the toilet on the left. You may piss in that toilet, or shit. Otherwise we piss in the urinals and shit only in the toilets.

My second gaffe was one I’d made my first day in Mississippi. I didn’t know then that I was expected to sit with the other white men in the chow hall and consequently suffered through a tense breakfast with a gang of Mexicans. This time around, however, I gathered my food tray and settled across from a gentleman of exceptional whiteness. I asked if he didn’t mind my sitting with him. He swallowed a bite of bologna sandwich and replied very sweetly, “Of course you can sit here. You can sit anywhere.”

Right then I knew I had sat at the wrong table again, because no self-respecting white man in prison would dare say such a thing. A proper white man would have wiped the salad dressing from his beard, screwed one eye up at me and said, “Why sure you can sit here . . . long as you ain’t a homo or cho-mo”–child molester. Or he might have told me, simply, to fuck off.

Sit anywhere–imagine! Here was a man who had no appreciation for the prison caste system or, for that matter, the white man’s rightful seat at the top. Obviously this poor soul was an exile, banished by his own race, but for what misdeed or to what band of outcasts he belonged I did not know. I finished my sandwich and ran.

My third mistake wasn’t so much a mistake as an uninformed decision. I was fiddling with the broken latch on my locker when I was approached by a tall gray-haired man who introduced himself as Speaker for the Whites. His appearance was sudden but not surprising. Here it was, the first order of business, the standard greeting for every new arrival: Who are you? Where are you from? Who do you run with? Are you a sex offender?

“Are you a sex offender?” the Speaker asked.

I held his gaze and answered as I always have. “No,” I lied. “I’m not a sex offender.”

“Because it’s fine if you are,” he qualified. It is? “There’s lots of sex offenders here”–there are?–“and we don’t bother or harass them or steal their shit.” You don’t?

Big Spring, it turns out, is a sanctuary to some 300 sex offenders. Strength-in-numbers and a no-tolerance policy keep them safe. Mess with a sex offender and you might find yourself facing criminal charges or, at the very least, spending the rest of your bid in a penitentiary up north where it snows nine months out of the year. Had I known I’d find protection here in the company of others, I might have decided to come clean.

Like the Whites, the sex offenders have their own speaker, a young gay man named Michael whose charge, I’m told, involves child porn. I saw him passing through the gym yesterday with a new initiate in tow. One of his roles as speaker is to welcome incoming sex offenders, introduce them to the crew, lay down the rules (tell them about the toilets), and give them a tour of the facility: and here are the elliptical machines and stationary bikes, and here the leather craft shop and equipment closet, and the art room hung with tentative but promising oil portraits of actresses, quarterbacks, Jesus Christ, and of wives and children left behind in Mexico. They passed me at the water fountains, the newb still shitting street food and looking overwhelmed like a man trying to drink from a fire hose, and continued out a back door and on to the horseshoe pits and the Natives’ sweat lodge.

The speaker is also responsible for securing turf for his constituents. In this respect Michael has done well. The sex offenders control all land and picnic tables between the rec center and Mexican-owned hand ball courts. Middle Earth, the Whites call it. They also enjoy the chapel’s courtyard with its solitary white-washed birch tree, the only tree like it on the yard. And, accessible from inside the rec center, through a door marked NO SUNBATHING / NO BRONCEAR, is their own private outdoor patio with chairs, tables, and flat screen televisions. Leave it to a homosexual man to vie for the coziest spots on the compound.

They do well for themselves, which makes me think I should rescind, take back my hasty lie and join the other pedos, homos, and cho-mos on the porch for a game of Scrabble or Scattegories: name a candy that begins with p–Pay Days, peanut brittle, penny candy.

The Whites have amenities, too–a private television room and unfettered access to the weight pile–but disassociating myself from the sex offenders did not automatically grant me access to these White-only privileges. The Speaker made this clear. If I want to run with the Whites I must present them with my paperwork–court documentation proving I am neither a sex offender or snitch. Without such evidence I am white only in color, not in status. I am white with a little w. I run solo.

It didn’t take long to figure out that that man I’d eaten bologna sandwiches with was a sex offender. He and the other cho-mos occupy four rows of tables nearest the hot-and-cold bar. And though it wasn’t my intention and have since found other accommodations, I can at least say with good humor that I had sat at the right table after all.

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The EconoLodge

Jamie and I had been out this way once before back when we were in college. It was Memorial Day weekend. We loaded up his mom’s dusty Grand AM with sleeping bags, tent, and ice chest of Cokes, cold cuts, and franks and headed west down Interstate 20. Soon the city petered out into suburb, and suburb gave way to country, a land of oil rigs and Dairy Queens. We passed all manner of farms with their corresponding farmy smells—cattle farms, hog farms, cotton farms, the latter of which smelled not dissimilar from the first two.

And then things got strange. The flat unadorned plains I’d grown accustomed to in my seventeen years of living in North Texas and the panhandle unfurled into rolling hills, and farther west these hills dipped and catapulted into valleys and ranges whose peaks and broad slopes were stippled with awesome and terrifying alien turbines—wind farms.

Stranger still we passed through Midland, that petroleum-rich outpost from which our former president George W. Bush suckled as a child, its gleaming towers of black gold arising from nothing, like the great Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz.

And then we reached the desert. Not arid, sandy soils but true desert–dunes as tall as forty feet on all four sides of the car. I recall a grade school teacher boasting that Texas is the only state in the nation to exhibit all of the major geological forms—plains, coastlines, canyons, mountains, plateaus, and yes, even desert.

We parked the Grand AM, unpacked the ice chest, and pitched our tent in the sand. We spent the next afternoon sledding down the dunes on platters whose bottoms we’d rubbed with blocks of wax.

Eight years later I found myself again traveling through West Texas, though this time not in a Grand AM but in a Greyhound, shackled at the hands and feet along with thirty-eight other inmates. Luckily there was no layover in Lubbock, but we did drop off some illegals in Garza County at what looked like a POW camp. The Hispanic sitting next to me turned away from the window.

“Glad I’m not getting off at this shit hole,” he said.
Our shit hole, it turned out, was about two hours further west, some twenty-five miles before Midland. The prison sits on a hill overlooking the weedy parking lots of Big Spring, population 28,000. Founded in 1881 with the coming of the rail, the city enjoyed a modest boom after oil was discovered in 1928. Today Big Spring’s industrial bread and butter includes oil refinement, meat packing, and the manufacturing of cottonseed, clay goods, and mattresses.

The prison was once an Army base, built in 1942, and still retains much of its former military bearings. The barracks are still in the business of housing. The chapel with its secular stained glass is still in the business of worshiping. The recreation center with its communal fireplace, whose flue has undoubtedly been sealed shut for security purposes, is still home to many a pool and foosball tournament. The gym remains a gym, the chow hall a chow hall. Perhaps even the striped red, white, and blue barber’s pole outside the barber shop is an original fixture. And were this a maximum-security penitentiary instead of a low-security facility, the now derelict air control tower would likely succeed as a gun turret. Army bases, it seems, are ideal for prison-making.

The transition from military base to corrections facility, however, isn’t perfect, and the building charged with processing incoming prisoners proved cramped and underequipped for the task. When it came time to be strip searched, I was made to undress inside a storage closet stacked with boxes of inmate property.

I’ve stripped and bared the underside of my balls for many officers in my inmate career. One eventually becomes immune to any bashfulness. Most officers don’t look too closely anyway. Some outright avert their eyes, choosing instead to stare at the ceiling, lest they have you believe they are faggots who enjoy looking up other men’s asses, though they don’t really look up your ass, unless you’re fat, in which case they might ask you to spread your cheeks. Turn. Squat. Cough. I’ve never understood that. Or rather I can’t see how squatting and coughing to be an effective means of dislodging contraband from one’s anus. I imagine even the most violent hacking wouldn’t much coax a sufficiently resolute sphincter.

After redressing I had my picture taken for a new identification card. Then I met with a nurse whose office was a mop closet retrofitted with a computer terminal.

She said, “Are you currently taking any medication?”

“No.”

“Have you any know allergies? Are you allergic to any drugs?”

“No,”

“Have you ever test positive for HIV or contracted an STD?”

“No.”

“And have you”—she peered at me from behind her computer screen—“have you had sex with women prior to incarceration?” She added, “I know you’ve had sex with plenty of men . . .”

Plenty of men? Her computer says I’ve had sex with plenty of men? I don’t recall ever divulging this statistic, though I must have because, while not empirical, it was within relative reason. A guy I knew in college kept a very sophisticated spreadsheet on his computer of every man he’d ever slept with, and whether they’d had oral or anal sex, and whether they’d used a condom. (The idea for keeping such a document arose after a rather nasty brush with crabs.) Later in prison I compiled my own list. My total then was twenty-five. I also included each partner’s age and was pleased to know that none was younger than nineteen and the average fell in the upper thirties.

See, I thought. Nothing’s wrong with you. You’re not a pedophile. You’re perfectly normal.

After the nurse came a counselor who assigned me a dormitory and bunk number. Then I spoke with the chief psychologist, a straight-backed and pointed woman who, upon telling her my charge, warned me that there are images circulating the compound of young girls’ faces superimposed on nude bodies, and if caught with such contraband in my possession it would mean very bad things for me.

The interviews and screenings and paperwork lasted five hours. We filed out of R&D at six o’clock with bed rolls tucked beneath our arms. The sun and breeze felt astonishing after spending nearly three weeks confined indoors at the Oklahoma City Federal Transfer Center. But my sense of well-being didn’t last long. Our procession of new and shiny faces had attracted an audience. As we passed the rec yard, joggers circling the track field slowed to a walk. Men on the weight piles lowered their dumbbells and dismounted the pull-up bars. Hand ball games were abandoned and the orphaned balls bounced and rolled toward the recreation yard’s fence where inmates lined up to survey us newcomers.

We shuffled past recreation down a pitted road that descended a hill. At the bottom of the hill the road was imposed on either side by a stretch of brown brick buildings which might have been mistaken for dated apartment complexes if not for the barred windows. As we neared the dormitories, more inmates appeared. They lined the road, sizing us up, taking us in. A man, a Mexican, I don’t know who or from where, squeezed by bicep. “Hey. What’s up?” he said. Horrified, I gripped by bed roll tighter and entered the building to the east, Sunrise.

Unlike the relatively spacious, semi-private two-man cells of Mississippi, the dormitories of Big Spring are chaotic hives of twenty-four-hour shared living space, a competing mess of twisting and thrashing, scratching and pecking, feeding and shitting—another West Texas farm of sorts. Unlike Mississippi there is no dayroom in which to stretch and spread, no tables or desks to sit and write a letter. There simply isn’t room. Every square inch of wall and floor space is spoken for by locker, bunk, or body. I had left the Ritz and checked into the EconoLodge.

The stairwell that serviced Sunrise was clearly designed for a smaller crowd of young, svelte military recruits. I had to keep my shoulders tucked in to avoid the down swell of 800 khakied bodies and 1,600 clomping boots. The steps bowed down the middle from the wear of so many boots, then boots of the uniformed and decorated, now boots of the uniformed and incarcerated.

On the top third floor I reached a foyer crammed with bodies. There was a mailbox and bulletin boards, and carved down one wall were pigeon holes in which men roosted, warming the telephone lines. I stepped around three Mexicans spilling from a darkened alcove. Inside: some thirty disembodied faces painted blue, impassive, raceless. Across from the TV room a pocket of men stood spooning instant coffee into mugs and crumbling ramen into yellow-stained Tupperware, awaiting a go at the hot water dispensers. I’d heard the place was overcapacity—most prisons in the U.S. are—but surely these conditions posed a safety hazard. God forbid a fire break out. We’d die trying to get down those stairs.

Though a door, hook a left, two steps down and to the right, I tapped a white man on the shoulder. “Fifty-seven upper?” He turned and looked at me, then pointed toward the end of the room. “All the way back,” he said.

I followed the man’s finger through a maze whose walls were built of stacked lockers and beds and of laundry strung out to dry: socks, towels, underwear—all of life’s pollution exposed. I picked my way through the debris. Lay spread on one bunk, four men played spades. On another six Mexicans rolled burritos. Hovering over the top of a locker, seemingly undistracted, two black men played chess. Elsewhere in their bunks men read, gossiped, and argued. They listened to loud music and ate and hustled. They gambled and bullshitted, belched and farted. And a few, amidst all the commotion, unfathomably, slept.

In reaching the end of the room, I still hadn’t found my bunk. The numbers scribbled on the lockers were out of order. I pressed on through a door marked exit. Another room. More bunks, more lockers, more bodies stacked on top of the other.

“Fifty-seven upper?” I said, and a young Mexican with bruised eyes and severe nose pointed to the bunk above and beside his own. He could have touched it, so close were the beds.

I shook hands with the man and the other young Mexican sitting beside him who was to be my bunkmate. They considered me with reserve as I gave them the spill I’d practiced beforehand, in the voice I’d practiced beforehand, one of nonchalant boredom which in my mind I associate with the voice of the unexceptional heterosexual male: Came from Mississippi. Originally from Dallas. Been down three and a half years. Got six more to go. (I believe incomplete sentences are another masculine trait.)

I wasted no time settling into my new home. I began by making the bed, which required me to get in the bed for lack of room. I used my locker as a stepladder and swiftly smacked my head against the ceiling. This amused the Mexicans. Then I attacked my mattress with a sheet as though I were trying to smother a fire. The bunk swayed, springs popped. Some brown paint from the bunk’s frame flaked off in my hand on the climb down. As I was placing the standard-issue toothbrush, comb, and bar soap in my broken and rusted out locker, I heard a familiar voice from around the corner.

I saw the back of him first—his coarse black hair matted with sweat, thick neck and wide girth, short legs void of ankles.

“Joe!” I cried. It was my old coworker from Mississippi. We had worked in the library together for years. He turned around, his beady black eyes shining, jowls dimpled. So beautiful in his familiarity. He grabbed my hand and clapped me on the back.

“Joe! You’re here! Isn’t this place just awful?”

“Ain’t it some shit?” he said. “They tricked us, man. They tricked us!”

“Joe, if the bus pulled up this very second—“

But he finished my thought: “I’d jump on it. I’d tell ‘em take me back. Please! Take my ass back to Mississippi!”

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The Chain Gang

They came for me at one in the morning. I dressed in the dark, so as not to wake Tom, and stripped the sheets and blanket from my bed. I left my pillow to Tom, for we had decided the night before that mine was the nicer of the two.

“Good luck,” he muttered in his sleep.

I dragged my mattress and linens downstairs passing Cisco’s door on the way. Hours earlier we had been playing gin and eating Pop Tarts. And he and the other Christians had gathered in a circle to pray over me, our hands all entwined.

And then we broke bread. Cisco, for whatever reason, had squirreled away a package of sliced wheat bread from the boxed lunches we’d received six months ago during a lockdown. It became a running gag to see how long the bread would last. Every month he’d pull it from the back of his locker and remark on its surprising softness. Not a sign of mold. Is it even real bread? To celebrate my last night in Mississippi we decided to open the package and share a slice.

“A little dry,” I said, “but not bad.”

Now Cisco’s light was off, his window dark. For him I left behind my book lamp and a copy of Thoreau’s Walden.

Right this way, this way here. Name and number, please. Very good. Step on over there by that door. No, the other door. Finally getting outta here, huh? Name and number, name and number. Step inside. Have a seat.

There were seven of us in the holding cell. One was the man on his way to Fort Worth for a court appearance. He was lying on a bench with a roll of toilet paper tucked beneath his head. We didn’t speak to each other. No one in the room spoke much. Tired. Nervous. My legs wouldn’t stop fidgeting. I recognized the man sitting on the bench across from me as Elijah’s old cellmate, Josh. I wondered if he knew about the extortion. Elijah and I had had a fight. Afterwards, out of revenge, he revealed my true charge to a Texas Aryan Brother. The threats and payments went on for a month until the AB was transferred. Elijah himself disappeared not long after. Josh would later tell me he had transferred to Virginia.

After an hour’s wait in the holding cell, we heard chains dragging across the floor. One Mexican peered through the bars and grinned. “Here comes the jewelery.”

Three at a time, gentlemen. Three at a time. Step on out. Clothes off. Everything off. Toss it here. Keep your socks and underwear. Open your mouths, lift your balls. Turn, squat, cough. Put these on. Shirts tucked in. Step this way. Arms out, hands together. Turn around, feet together. Shirts tucked in, gentlemen. Shirts tucked in. Right this way. Step on in. Have a seat.

The seven of us were placed in an even smaller cell, this one already occupied by eight more men already dressed and adorned with “jewelery.” The jewelery included chains around our ankles and cuffs around our wrists, our hands then secured to chains cinched around our waists preventing us from moving our hands any higher than our navels.

I heard my name as soon as I sat down and turned to see Marzola, the former library clerk, tipping his head to me. Two months ago he had been tossed in the SHU for getting into it with some Mexicans. I nodded back. Apparently they had decided to ship him out of Mississippi for his safety.

Listen for your names, gentlemen. Listen up. Bailey, Barringer, Erickson . . . End of the hall, end of the hall. Lomus, Markus, Marzola . . . Line up, make room, nice and tight. Straight line, gentlemen. I want it straight.

Led and trailed by rifled officers, we shuffled through the prison lobby past grinning portraits of past wardens and the President and Vice President of the United States. The foot-long length of chain allowed for only half strides. Outside the air was warm, the moon shown full. A bus idled in the parking lot, its interior lights glowing romantically, door open. Although technically incorrect, for we were not bound to each other, someone, an inmate, mentioned a “chain gang.” Us others laughed nervously.

All the way back, gentlemen, all the way back. Leave those front seats empty.

It was a Greyhound built around a cage with an open toilet at the rear. I sat near the front, behind Marzola.

“Where are they sending you?” I asked. I made no mention of the fight with the Mexicans.

“They didn’t tell me,” he said. “You?”

“West Texas.”

“Is that where you wanted to go?”

“No. But it’s a little closer to home.”

It had been over three years since I last saw the outside world. Cisco and I had talked nostalgically of all the sights I’d see on the the bus ride to the Oklahoma City Transfer Center, and I looked forward to my reintroduction to the old familiar. The trip took about ten hours. Through the Greyhound’s barred, tinted windows I saw fast food chains and strip malls, gas stations, and car washes. I saw pharmacies and motor inns, adult video stores, and Indian casinos. From four feet looking down I spied civilians driving to work, pumping gas, and hauling kids to school. I watched them sip their morning coffees and nibble their breakfast burritos and text their husbands and wives and bosses. It was all so disappointing. Freedom is underwhelming when observed from the highway.

Marzola turned to me, his chains rustling in his lap. “Hey, look it,” he said. “Our driver’s checking his Facebook.”

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