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 ocupied 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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Transferring

I’ve been told it’s a good time to be leaving Mississippi. “This place is going to shit,” one man said. “Take me with you,” said another. It’s the same with every new warden. They come in, hitch up their drawers, and declare, starting now, things are gonna be a lil different ’round here. Yes, sir. And then they set about painting the shutters red while overlooking the cracks in the foundation.

The newest warden, the third in my three and a half years here, has stirred a considerable ruckus. Her most rousing changes have been the hourly movements and traffic flow, minor inconveniences really, but to inmates, for whom routine is everything, the changes are perceived as a threat to what little liberty and control they have. There have been murmurs of protest, of “laying down”–refusing food, refusing to work–but no car has claimed leadership.

Yes, they say it’s a good time to get out, but I have many reservations about Wednesday’s transfer. I too am frightened of change. The move feels more lateral than vertical; I’ve heard things about West Texas–race riots, inmate politics, despite the facility being a step lower in security.

And then there’s the transfer process itself–a thirteen-hour bus ride, shackled at the hands, feet, and waist; a two to four-week layover at a transfer facility in Oklahoma; and then another arduous bus journey out West, with a possible one-night stay in a Lubbock county jail.

And there’s the people I’ll be leaving behind, the Christian brothers, who’ve shown me more kindness and camaraderie than any white man sharing the same last three digits as me. Last night at church service, Brother Jones invited me up to the pulpit where he laid a hand on my shoulder and prayed over me, that I should follow wherever the Lord leads me, that I should be protected by the hands of angels on my journey.

And then there’s Cisco.

“I never thought,” he told me one night after walking the track, “that I’d ever meet a friend like you so late in my life.”

This afternoon I packed out. Cisco helped me carry my belongings to Receiving and Discharge. Watching the CO tally my books and clothes reminded me of the day I packed my apartment before surrendering, and I was surprised again by how few possessions I owned, my whole life packed into a single cardboard box–two t-shirts, two thermals, sweatpants, MP3 player, shower shoes. . . .

Another man was packing out to go to Fort Worth for a court appearance. He patted my shoulder and wished me luck. It’s funny how kind people are when they hear you’re leaving. It’s the one thing we all share in common, regardless of our race or where we’re from: we all want to get closer to home.

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Mail Call

People only write when they have good news, so it seems. A friend has received a promotion at work. A college boyfriend, now living overseas, is marrying a Frenchman and has found an investor for a new business venture. And Lyle, who after an experimental cross-dressing phase changed his name to Lily and began transitioning to female, has decided to go back to school to study accounting. Also she is moving in with a computer engineer graduate from Rice University. And they’ve adopted a puppy. His name is Zac–the puppy’s, not the boyfriend’s.

Every letter brings news of a milestone: career advancement, home ownership, marriage, relocation, procreation. They send me postcards from California and letters from France. They send me photos of weddings, baby showers, and cruise ship vacations. The ones who still write. I put the envelopes to my nose and imagine I can smell the San Francisco Bay, the French country side. But all I smell are the leaky magazine cologne samples of other people’s mail. California smells like Calvin Klein, Bordeaux like Dior.

It should have been me. It should have been me.

My new cellmate Tom receives a letter from his old lady once a week. She too is in prison, housed at a women’s facility in another state. Last Wednesday she sent Tom a pencil drawing of Lady and the tramp: “Tom & Diana, True Love is Hard to Find.” The resemblance between Tom and the stray is touching. Both are older than their years, tread-worn, and graying at the scruff. The lines on the back of Tom’s neck are deep and geological. Though only in his late forties, some men in the unit call him Pops and Grandpa. But Tom take no offense. He’s a gentle rogue, adorably mangy. When he’s not reading his paperback westerns or writing his wife pages and pages–what do they discuss?–he sleeps, the old soul. “Must be from all the meth he’s smoked,” I told Cisco this at ten on a weekday morning and Tom still not having left his bed. “He’s still catching up on sleep from 1984.”

Tom keeps the amorous canines tacked to his half of the bulletin board, next to the Cell Sanitation Standard and photographs of his two teenage stepdaughters. The youngest poses in a cheerleading uniform, school colors red and white, the Bronchos, blonde hair in shiny wet curls. She saves half her lunch money and sends it to Tom at the end of every month.

“They’ve always treated me like a real father,” he told me one night after lockdown. “God, I miss those girls. They’d feel bad, me having to drive them to school. They didn’t realize how much I loved doing it, how much I looked forward to taking them each morning. That was our time together. Just me and the girls.”

We gather for mail call every weekday before supper. Simmons, 078. Robinson, 177. Prince, 043. The black CO looks to the nearest brown-skinned inmate to help him with the names of the illegals, of which there are many. Villegas, 379. Cantaerro, 042. Turubiates, 284. We push to the front to collect our mail. Bertram receives two letters and a book; yesterday he got three letters and a postcard.

We pretend not to notice.

Mail is lightest on Mondays and Fridays, days when the mailroom staff are slow getting in and quick to leave, for every item that comes in must be opened, read, sniffed, scrutinized, and stapled shut before it can be delivered. Mail is heaviest on Christmas and Father’s Day, and on Valentine’s the cards spill from the mail sack in uniform crimson envelopes. Some get one or two. Many get nothing.

We pretend not to notice.

Today I received a letter from a friend I haven’t heard from in over three years. He tells me he’s opened a private medical practice. It should have been me. I don’t know if I’ll write him back. Bo once told me he stopped writing people a few years into his bid. “They have their lives, and I have mine. It’s hard to keep them separate. It’s easier that way.” Bo doesn’t go to mail call.

Another letter comes to me in a familiar typewritten envelope. My father prints them in bulk, so frequent are his letters, so permanent is my address. As official spokesperson of the family, he reports on the familiar household business: the fertility of the garden, the cats’ latest antics, and Mom’s newest interior decorating project. This month she’s sewing drapes for the dining room, though Dad writes he had to rehang them in the bedroom after it was decided the fabric didn’t go with the dining room wall color after all. It’s a long-standing family joke that the burden of Mom’s design indecisions fall on my father, who must paint every wall at least twice if he paints it once, as was the case with the dining room. “You know your mother,” he writes. “She can’t visualize anything.”

It’s impossible to read my father’s letters without hearing his voice, which in the years since I’ve been locked up sounds increasingly like a cassette deck losing juice. He turned seventy this past May and has been working since he was eleven, his first job delivering papers, and cooking since he was fourteen, flipping burgers for Browning Heights Drug and Hardware. It was there under the instruction of the store’s Jewish proprietor that he learned the proper way to slice a tomato–thin enough to read through to yesterday’s sports scores. The flesh would dissolve as soon as it hit the warm beef, leaving only a ring of skin and some seeds. Sixty-one years of work, most spent in overheated kitchens chopping and sweating onions, the astringent smell of garlic collecting on his burned and calloused fingers like something you could almost see, something yellow, and certainly smell. As a young boy I often pulled away from that smell whenever my father reached out to touch my shoulder or ruffle my hair.

Sixty-one years. God, he’s tired. So tired. How he’d love to find himself a little storefront, open up a little hot dog stand or burger joint, wouldn’t need to make much money, just enough to get by on, keep it simple, cheeseburgers and fries, onion rings maybe, nothing fancy . . . “But you know how your mother is.”

My father is dying. Work is killing him. My mother is killing him. I am killing him.

“I just pray,” he writes, “that I’ll still be here to see you get out, so I can help you get back on your feet.”

I put my father’s letter to my nose and smell nothing.

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One Team, One Mission

They’ve built another prison, a high security penitentiary, next door to our own. From outside the chow hall we can see the blank 360-degree stare of the guard tower peeking above the yard’s reinforced walls and fencing. The addition of a penitentiary to our medium and nearby minimum and low security facilities makes us officially a “complex;” inmates can be shipped across the security spectrum and remain local while officers can be shared within the complex and allocated wherever manpower is needed, saving the government money on inmate transfers and staff retention.

In wake of the pen’s opening, the complex produced a series of T-shirts intended to boost staff morale. I saw a nurse wearing one of the new shirts at main line. It was Kelly green and imprinted with an imposing guard tower, like something out of Alcatraz, that looks nothing like what we see from the chow hall which more closely resembles the control tower of a small municipal airport. The shirt read, We Tower Above the Rest. Another officer wore a baby blue design that read, One Team, One Mission. I asked Cisco what their mission was exactly.

“To keep us oppressed,” he said.

This last shirt featured the state of Mississippi silhouetted against concertina wire. I imagined that wire stretching across the state, literally, across country and city, over freeway and farm road, dividing neighborhoods and playgrounds, schools and homes. But the irony in such imagery was apparently lost on those who conceived the atrocious idea.

Last month some suits from another prison came through to tour our Education Department. In anticipation of their visit, the library received an extensive makeover: shelves were padded with books, furniture was rearranged, walls were painted a fresh coat of institutional gray, and the floors were waxed and buffed to a gelatinous gleam. The highlight of the tour was to be the job kiosk, an expensive, hulking machine with touch display that allows inmates to find employment ahead of their release. Once while browsing the openings I found my old position, listed by my former employer. I recalled the morning my boss came to my desk and touched me lightly on the shoulder. Soon thereafter I was escorted from the building carrying a box of my belongings–a wireless mouse, a coffee mug with the company logo engraved on the side, a bag of half-eaten goldfish crackers–which they were nice enough to have packed for me while I signed my resignation.

Now, as an inmate working inside a prison library, it was my job to demonstrate the job hunting kiosk to our visitors. But the kiosk, which I heard cost ten-thousand dollars, was broken; the printer wasn’t grabbing paper and inmates hadn’t been able to print job leads for the past three months. Not a problem, said the administrator over Education, a young Eddie Murphy look-alike. We’ll open the machine, feed a slip of paper into the printer by hand, and close her back up. “But we’ll only have one shot at printing,” he said, “so make sure the inmates don’t use the kiosk until after the demonstration.” He taped an Out of Order sign to the machine’s display and instructed me not to remove it until the visitors arrived.

While performing my dog and pony show for the suits–Eddie Murphy stood by wringing his hands, either because he was afraid the kiosk might blow up or because he thought I might try to fuck over his demonstration–I was reminded of a hokey little company I worked for in college that sold websites to small businesses. We’d laugh whenever our customers purchased search engine optimization; none of us knew what it was. We were like the used car salesmen of the tech world.

Prison itself is a hokey business: a bumbling enterprise funded by taxpayers, manned by apathetic saps whose job it is to sell you a vague service–justice, rehabilitation, public welfare–that no one understands or can afford, but are told they can’t live without.

Recently I was granted access into the belly of the enterprise, the administration building, to help with a project. An Assistant Warden was retiring and as a parting gift the staff had framed an enlarged snapshot of the AW dancing awkwardly at a past Christmas party. Eddie Murphy wanted me to sign the surrounding matte with various improvised hands, as if signed by the staff, but a staff with better penmanship.

In a conference room at the end of a long hall, past offices and a kitchenette, I toiled away for almost an hour, experimenting with different lettering and embellishments–Roman and script, uppercase and title case, exclamation marks and underscores–before applying a steady hand to the matte. Crazily I thought they might throw me in the hole if I messed up. But the senior secretary was pleased with my work, and she wrapped the framed gift in scrap paper she’d brought in from home. I picked out the ribbon and helped her tie it with the aid of my finger.

It was this disconnect, I realized later, between prison and the business of prison that had allowed for the creation of those tacky T-shirts. Back there amongst the offices and conference rooms and the kitchenette with communal coffee pot and three kinds of sweetener, buffeted against the desperation and rattling of inmate life, the shirts had seemed like a good idea.

It’s strange to think of my confinement as someone else’s job, one that includes the trappings of any other business–interoffice gifts, Christmas parties, dog and pony shows, concern for employee morale. I stare out the coinslot window of my cell and watch the cars pull in and out of the parking lot, the officers putting in their eight hours, clocking out for lunch, changing shifts. Timesheets. Paid vacations. Retirement. One Team, One Mission.

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Static

We were in the chow hall eating lunch, chili dogs with packets of brown ketchup, when we looked up to see the Paisas abandoning their tables mid-meal, as though all at once they had received a covert transmission ordering them to mobilize.

“Something’s up,” said the man beside me.

An inmate once compared the tension preceding a prison brawl to static, an invisible stirring in the air. That afternoon we felt its pull; we saw its effects in the sidelong stares, vigilant postures, and aimless milling. The blacks congregated in front of the units, speaking in monosyllables. The Paisas meanwhile lingered along the sidewalks, quietly attuned to a frequency all their own, awaiting another transmission.

First timer Francisco picked up on the static, too. He noticed the blacks looking skittish at dinner. “Maybe we’ll see another show with our meal,” I said, referring to Cisco’s first week on the yard when he and I witnessed a man get slammed over the head with a tray of food. Spectators were pelted with lettuce and soured ketchup packets. French fries bounced off the warden’s fine trench coat and landed at his feet. Dinner and a show.

On the evening of the Paisas’ walkout, as we were preparing for Bible study, the PA system clicked on and ordered us back to our units. We gathered our Bibles and started to leave but stopped just short of the chapel door, for outside beneath a leaden sky, upwards of 600 men had assembled into two opposing armies, neither budging, PA system be damned. The blacks and Mexicans stared at each other across a distance of some twenty yards, as if divided by a steep cleft. No one spoke; no one moved. Static. The quiet seemed a blight against nature, for how could such a great force exist without an equally great thunder? Respectfully abiding, even the wind held its breath. And on the outskirts, looking grossly inadequate, stood the warden in his trench coat and a handful of officers. One CO held a rifle.

I’ve never witnessed a riot, though I’ve heard gruesome accounts from those who have. Steve told me of one man whose head was skewered through the eye socket with a splintered broom handle. Rod said that whenever things kicked off in the State they’d string magazines around their torso to deflect knives. So that evening when the two armies converged–a single trill sounded from the Mexican side like a battle cry–I was convinced I would see death, murder, for the first time in my life. This will change me, I thought. But the armies stopped within spitting distance of each other. The men stood down, the shot callers stepped forward, and, incredibly, the two sides began to negotiate.

Back inside the chapel we speculated on the outcome of the arbitrations and regaled one another with terrifically violent stories of past riots. Some of us, black and brown, joined hands and prayed for peace on the compound. Watching the negotiations from the window, I recalled the Paisas’ earlier exodus from the chow hall and was struck for the second time that day by the organization of that seemingly unruly mass of men, their diplomacy and self-governance, how quickly and efficiently they were able to communicate, assemble, and act as one homogeneous body. And compare that to the officers with their protocols and hierarchy and sophisticated radios, the authority of an entire government behind them, standing at the sidelines overwhelmed and underpowered with only a rifle and handful of rubber bullets.

We’d be locked down for the next seven days, pending the investigation. We’d be confined to our cells, then later handcuffed and escorted into back offices and made to give statements and answer questions: “Do you have any reason to feel unsafe at this facility?” Having self-surrendered, it would be my first time placed in handcuffs.

At the end of the investigation, after operations have resumed, a memo would be sent to the director of the Bureau of Prisons summing up the disturbance, the near riot, and the staff’s quick and efficient response: Issues were identified, protocols observed, roles assigned, procedures executed, culprits detained, and order restored, all within the span of a week, with no injury to staff or inmate.

Absent from that report would be any mention of the men’s self-mediated negotiation and subsequent disbanding, for not more than ten minutes after the two sides converged did they arrive at a peaceable resolution and quietly–and wholly of their own volition–dissolve back into their units. Ironically, those who led the negotiations would be charged with inciting a riot and thrown into the hole.

Nevertheless, despite whatever assurances such a report might claim, what everyone knows, and what I’m only now beginning to realize, is that it isn’t the wardens and lieutenants and officers but the inmates themselves who run the prisons.

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Weakness

As a nonbeliever, it’s more unsettling than I care to admit the many sermons I’ve sat through in which I’ve felt the preacher was speaking directly to me. It happened again last night at Bible study when Chaplain Barlow, reading from the book of Matthew, posed the question: is meekness the same as weakness? To demonstrate the difference, he motioned for an inmate near the front of the class to stand.

“Suppose Chuck here is a bully who’s just taken my lunch money.” Barlow extended an open palm to the man. More than illustrate a point, I believe Barlow’s demonstrations are intended to prove to us how comfortable he is around inmates. As if sensing a trick, Chuck hesitated before accepting the imaginary lunch money, and even then he was careful not to graze the chaplain’s starched cuff and gold cufflink; Brother in Christ though he may be, Barlow is still to many of us, first and foremost, a cop.

To walk away from a fight, Barlow continued, is to exercise meekness–power under restraint. “But suppose Chuck takes my lunch money every day, and every day I willingly hand him my two dollars.” The chaplain removed another imaginary bill from his pocket, then another. “Am I still being meek?”

Barlow paused while the class considered this; the silence seemed to me like a condemnation. I stared down at my Bible. Sometimes while sitting in church I flip to the back where the prescriptive verses are arranged by trial. For loneliness, Hebrews 13:5 says to “. . . be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” In moments of fear, Psalm 31:24 reminds me to “Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen [my] heart . . . .” When depressed, Psalm 42:11 encourages me to put my hope in the lord, “. . . for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.”

If Barlow were able to relate to us, if he were the everyman he so often presents himself as, I should think he’d have more practical advice, a more relevant protagonist than his tired Goliath-figure, to offer us.

Say this lunch room bully is a Texas Aryan Brother, and he demands you pay him commissary to keep quiet about your charge. If you refuse to pay him, he and his posse run you off the yard. If you fight him, reckoning you win, the gang retaliates. If you report the threat to a staff member, you’re labeled a snitch, and snitches end up in ditches. And if you check in to the SHU, the truth comes out regardless. In any case you spend the remaining seven years of your sentence running from yard to yard, rumor and reputation chomping at your heels.

So, you pay the guy. He hands you a neatly penned list for forty dollars worth of summer sausages, diet sodas, and oatmeal cream pies. Next week it’s a list for seventy dollars. You keep paying him week after week, hoping the sonofabitch will be satisfied, or that one of you will be transferred, and the demands will end.

What advice would Barlow offer a person in such a situation? What then would the chaplain have to say about meekness and weakness? What scriptures would he quote? What parables would he refer me to? I looked up extortion in the back of my Bible, but it wasn’t there.

That evening I made out yet another commissary list: two apple danishes, two honey buns, three six-packs of diet soda–Mountain Dew, 7-Up, Dr. Pepper–eight summer sausages, two bags of salted peanuts, two packs of batteries, and a bag of refried beans with chorizo. A total of $29.95.

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Fooling Ourselves

I suspect prison, with its inherent isolation and controlled access, would be an ideal environment in which to study the spread of infectious diseases, such as the flu, which has hit Mississippi early this year. According to Rod, our resident epidemiologist, the bug was likely brought in from the outside world by, to use his parlage, a dick-eating cop. The dick eater then passed it to a Mexican in Foxtrot-Three who sold a book of stamps to a Puerto Rican in Echo-Two who played dominoes with a Muslim in Delta-Four who shared a burrito with a kitchen worker, who thus introduced the bug into the chow hall where it sat cultivating on a serving spoon at the salad bar. Within days, our population was decimated.

Everyone is sick. The coughing and sneezing and discharging of phlegm echo in every block, in every unit, in every cell. And at night the labored snoring of our neighbors thrums through the air shafts between the walls. Rod has been too sick to paint. Oscar and his celly have quarantined themselves in their room and taken to eating ibuprofens for breakfast. And Elijah and I have forgone all kissing so as to spare me his own particular strain, which we suspect may be strep.

In our sniffling, aching states, we’ve been forced to expend our time indoors. We play chess, cards, dominoes, and scrabble. Connect Four enjoyed a brief revival in popularity before we realized it was only tic-tac-toe. A few men in Foxtrot have devised their own Monopoly board game dubbed ‘Hood Monopoly, in which one can amass a conglomerate of crack houses on Martin Luther King Boulevard. For many participants, it’s a game of life imitating art. Or is that art imitating life? A life of easy money, of dodging police, of passing in and out of jail, a life of a few small gains but of mostly staggering losses, a life spent traveling in circles.

One Chance card informs the player that he’s contracted an STD and must pay $1,000 in medical expenses.

Our prayer circle has been hit especially hard by the bug. As Christians we believe that all illness and disease are manifestations of Satan, and only through the belief and authority of Jesus Christ can the demon be exorcised and our ailments cured. Therefore the common cold is not a physiological test but a spiritual one which requires firm faith and intense prayer. But this theology theory has not played out. Despite our combined prayers and rebukes, the cold persists, and every night another of our fellow brethren is felled.

It began with Brother Warren and a small headache. Then his celly Brother Marcus contracted a cough, followed by Brother Jacob who came to the circle one night wearing sweats, skull cap, and a towel around his neck. The only man who has so far escaped contamination has been Brother Phillip, who is somewhat of a microphobe and always carries with him a pair of gloves for operating the phones and computers.

None of the brothers will admit he is sick. To admit illness is to claim illness, and as Christians we are wary of speaking such things into existence. And so we come together in a circle night after night, stubbornly singing hymns in off-tune wheezes, trying our best to stifle our coughs and fool ourselves into remission. After one particularly bloody bout of hacking, I asked Brother Jacob if he was okay. He cinched his towel tight around his neck and smiled stoically. “By the grace of God, I’m doing just fine.”

The one man who seems to be struggling the most with this delusion is Warren, who said nothing initially of his illness but instead maintained an air of detachment throughout the evening worship. Concerned, I found him in his room after the service and asked if he was all right. He had just finished brushing his teeth and was standing beneath the sink’s overhead light, hazel eyes shining. In his late thirties, the whiskers below his mouth are just beginning to turn gray. I would have gladly risked catching his cold for a taste.

“I’m fine, thank you,” he said somewhat embarrassed. “Just a little headache.”

Warren went to bed early the next night, skipping the prayer circle entirely, a first for him. I suppose I should be pleased to see him sick. Earlier in the year when I was suffering from a cold, Brother Jacob laid his heavily tattooed hands upon my shoulders and rebuked my illness in the name of Jesus Christ. At breakfast the next morning, Warren asked if I was feeling better. With an edge of sourness I told him I was not. He laughed and said I lacked faith. Now that his own faith is being tested and he has thus far failed to be delivered from sickness, I should feel vindicated. Rare is it for me to pass up the opportunity to champion my cynicism and disbelief. Strangely though, I feel no such inclination. I don’t want to see Warren sick. I don’t want to take away his God. I’d buy him cough drops had the commissary not run out.

Years ago when Jamie and I were together, he confided in me the stresses typical of every college student. He lamented his decision to study French and History. He wondered how he’d be able to pay his student loans, if he’d be able to find a job. He worried that the path he’d chosen–whichever path he’d settled on for that week–was the wrong one. He needed validation more than anything, and wished it most to come from his father. But his father died when he was only a small boy.

Sensing the need to say something, I told Jamie that his father, wherever he was, would be proud of the man his son was becoming. He pulled away wiping his eyes. “How can you say that?” he asked. “You don’t believe in God.”

True. But for his sake, I was willing to believe.

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