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?”


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


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


“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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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 to 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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