Hard Candy

Jack stops to smell the roses, an actual rose bush blooming outside the chow hall. He figures since the bush blooms once a year he has only to smell the roses ten more times before they let him out of prison. He’d pick a few blossoms and make rose water if there were any Iranians here to sell to. “They love the stuff,” he says. “They flavor their candies with it. Here in America we have flavors like triple-berry bomb blast while those kids in Iran are stuck sucking rose petals. It’s no wonder there’s so much anger in the Middle East.”

Flavor is the resident candy maker here, an old man with dark ebony skin and white hair like confectioners sugar. He makes his taffies not with rose petals but with Hawaiian Punch, combining the drink mix with powdered creamer and a splash of water to form a dough which he rolls into long ropes. He then braids together various flavors, chops them into even segments, and wraps the taffies in plastic squares cut from trash bags.

“Flavor! Flavor!” he shouts. This is his sales call. On the rec yard, in the vocation department, in the dormitories: “Sugar-free! Two for three stamps! Flavor! Flavor!”

Another bus came today bringing with it fifteen fresh faces. One newcomer has been assigned to our dorm. He’s a frumpy, slouchy fellow in his mid-forties with a square apologetic face. He shuffles through the room in blue soft bus shoes, a bed roll tucked beneath his arm. After four years in prison one becomes adept at spotting a sex offender. The newcomer lacks the hardness of weapons possession, the shiftiness of drug use, the sharpness of bank fraud. Illegal entry can be nixed; he’s clearly white. Following behind him the CO asks if he’s received his breathing machine for his sleep apnea. A sex offender, most definitely. The particular silence his presence casts over the room confirms that the other men are on to him too.

The newcomer sets down his bed roll three bunks over from my own and begins making his bed. Now the jokes begin. Someone mentions water pistols and Jolly Ranchers. Willy does a menacing impression of a pedophile—”Anybody want some caaaandies?” Jack wonders aloud if judges hand out sentence enhancements for owning Santa suits.

When I was on house arrest I was given a list of contraband. Among the items not allowed in my possession were toys, plush animals, and candy. I don’t recall a restriction on Santa suits.

“Caaaandies! Anybody want some caaaandies?” I laugh louder than the others, louder than even the Mexicans who are shrieking because Garza has farted, and Tino says it smells like wet baby shit and Garza had better stop or else the cho-mo might get turned on.

Many cho-moes have arrived on today’s bus. At dinner one can look across the chow hall to where the sex offenders sit quarantined beside the hot and cold bars and count—two, four, six, eight—eight blue shoes bouncing and jittering, crossing and recrossing beneath their tables.

“They’re taking over,” grumbles the man eating across from me. “Do you remember when they tried to start their own softball team?” A strange team they were, a study in juxtapositions, a mishmash of tall and short, thin and fat, bald and ponytailed, bearded and trimmed. They looked like the YMCA townspeople but without the panache. Sadly, the venture was short-lived. Come game day the opposing team walked off the field, refused to play.

“You watch,” says the man jabbing his spoon in the air. “Before you know it they’ll be in our TV rooms watching our TVs.”

After dinner a few of the veteran sex offenders stop by to give the newcomer a few items to get him started. They give him a plastic mug, a pair of shower shoes (“Size eleven; it’s all we could find.”), and a radio to borrow until he can buy his own from the commissary. They also dispense some advice. They recommend to the newcomer that he keep to himself, stay away from the “haters,” as they’re called. They tell him to get into a routine; routine keeps you sane and makes the time go by quicker.

That evening they gather on the rec yard, all of the new sex offenders, in a tight cluster beside the handball courts. In the few weeks they spent together at the transfer center they’ve developed, out of necessity, a safe clique with its own language, humor, and individual roles. Over time the men will stray to join other sex offender subcultures here—the queers, the intellects, the pseudo-intellects, the Jesus freaks, the dungeons-and-dragons freaks—so that in three months’ time they will hardly raise their hands to one another in passing. But for now they still rely on each other. They stick to their huddle, sharing an inside joke, tittering over some freshly observed irony, all the while searching for a place to put their hands. Those elastic-waist pants they wore on the bus have no pockets, and the soles of those soft shoes are as thin as slippers. They feel underdressed and overexposed, feel like everyone’s staring at them. And they are: the Mexicans on the handball courts, the whites in the horseshoe pits, the blacks on the weight pile. Everyone stares long and hard at the newest batch of sex offenders, searching each of them for the physical defect that might reveal a greater inner depravity. It’s like sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office trying to figure out what everyone’s got. That man with the droopy left eyelid—aggravated sexual assault. That one there with the red splotchy birthmark across his neck—indecency with a child. The young rangy one with the fair ponytail and feminine nose—kiddy porn, six-year-old girls, spankings.

I stare too, hoping not to see in them something of myself.

I watched a few of their practice games back when the sex offenders were still pushing to join the softball league. In the bleachers haters laughed and jeered—”Caaaandies?” Tonight the stands are empty, the benches deserted. The season was temporarily suspended by a seven-foot mound of dirt dumped beside second base. Jack says it’s the new inmate cemetery; really they’re leveling the field, patching the holes. I’d like to believe the other team forfeited because they were afraid of getting beaten and humiliated by a bunch of rapists, child molesters, and perverts. But there was really no competition. The sex offenders just weren’t that good.

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Games that Aren’t

On the first day of class we played a game. “It’s not a game,” said Mrs. Eller. “It’s an activity.” Games are for little kids. She handed us each a blank slip of paper and had us push our chairs into a circle. Imagine you are free, she said. Twenty-four dark faces stared at her. You’ve been granted the opportunity to cook dinner for your favorite celebrity. Who would you choose, and what would you cook?

We scribbled down our answers and dropped them into a hair net. Mrs. Eller shook it furiously with her small hands and reached inside: “Nicki Minaj—something Italian.”

Joe ducked in his seat and grinned.

We continued around the circle pulling slips of paper from the hair net, matching each man to his fantasy celebrity dinner. Upshaw chose Bill Clinton. The men cried foul. You can’t take a man on a date. Upshaw crossed his arms and reminded us that it was not a date, that he could cook dinner for whomever he wanted, and just what was wrong with Bill Clinton, anyway? “Bill a cool guy.”

Lugo’s fantasy was to prepare tongue tacos for Queen Elizabeth. Someone pointed out that the Queen of England probably doesn’t eat tongue tacos. Lugo looked directly at Cole. “Well, if Jennifer Lopez eats ox tails and gravy, I’m sure the Queen wouldn’t mind trying my tacos.”

Painted on the wall just outside the Food Service Management classroom is a mural of Daffy Duck leaping from a cauldron of duck soup, a toque shooting from his feathered head like a popped cork. Inside, the classroom resembles a restaurant. Lectures are held in the dining room and cover everything from pest control to the proper internal cooking temperature of roast chicken. In the kitchen, inmates prepare scratch-made meals to hone their culinary and food-safety skills. Today we are cooking barbecued brisket pizza.

On a long prep table sit six bowls, each containing flour, salt, and baking soda. Mrs. Eller’s top aide and right hand Stuart, who is white, takes one bowl for himself before passing two to Watson and Taylor, who are also white. He hands a fourth and fifth bowl to Joe and Cole, who are not white but whom he happens to like. The last remaining bowl sits at the end of the table unclaimed, near Santos, who eyes it tentatively. The other men have already begun kneading their dough. Santos slips on disposable gloves too big for his brown hands and is just about to reach in when Joe, not seeing, slides the bowl to me. My hands go in. The water and flour pass through my fingers in soft cool ribbons. When I look back up Santos is gone. He’s sitting in the dining room, his gloved hands resting in his lap. I continue to knead.

One man’s dough is too wet, another’s too dry. Stuart oversees progress from the head of the table. When we finish, Joe and I retire to the dining room to wait while the dough rests.

“I’m going bald,” he says grabbing a cinnamon pinwheel from the platter on our table, leftovers from yesterday. “I get these thin spots whenever I stress. It looks like I’ve got mange.”

“Why are you stressed?” Santos asks.

“I’m supposed to hear something this month about the two-point reduction.” Joe is one of thousands of federal inmates hoping that recent drug reform legislation might commute his sentence. “I tried calling my wife to see if she’s heard from the lawyer, but I’m out of minutes.”

Lugo pours the rest of his iced coffee into my cup against my protest. “How much time will they knock off?” he asks.

“Three years, maybe. If I can get three years plus credit for the time I served in the state, I’ll be looking at a twenty-twenty release.” Joe peeks at me from across the table. “And then me and my good buddy here—”

“Not a chance, Joe.” I turn to Lugo. “He’s trying to enlist me in a new scheme he’s cooked up.”

His scheme is this: he buys a house, fixes it up, hires hookers to cook, clean, and tend to the male clientele. “It’s a hotel!” he says.

“It’s a brothel,” I say.

Joe pops the rest of the pinwheel in his mouth and leaves to check on the brisket. I ask Santos if he has much time left. For his celebrity dinner he told the class he would cook his father’s shrimp with mango salsa for Odeya Rush. He tells me he has one year left.

“And then what?” I ask.

“I’ll lay low for awhile, until I figure out my next move. If I do come back it’ll be for something worth it.”

“What could be worth your freedom?”

“Depends on the payload.”

Back in the kitchen, Stuart is shredding the cooled brisket while Taylor simmers the strawberries and sugar to top the cheesecakes we baked yesterday. Cole is rolling out the pizza dough. He tamps down the soft mounds with his dark fingertips and rolls them out onto cookie sheets which Joe has dusted with cornmeal. After crimping the edges, Cole passes the pies to Watson who ladles on the barbecue sauce.

That sauce was the subject of much controversy. Mrs. Eller prepared it yesterday from a handful of ingredients—ketchup, mustard, brown sugar, Worcestershire, some spices—but nobody was happy with it. Stuart said it was missing something. Cole said it lacked kick. Mrs. Eller blamed cheap Worcestershire, which she said tasted like salt water. More ingredients were dumped into the pot. Mrs. Eller added a shot of apple cider vinegar. Taylor added diced onions. The sauce doubled in volume. Sprinkling in garlic powder from a yellow tin can, Stuart said, “By the time we’re done we’ll have a $95 sauce that still tastes like shit.” Mrs. Eller swatted him with an oven mitt. For her dinner companion she chose actor Sam Elliott. She explained that her family didn’t have much money when she was growing up and dinners often consisted of macaroni and whatever else was lying around, usually tomatoes and some beans. “Mac and Tom”—that’s what she’d fix for Sam Elliott.

To everyone’s surprise, the sauce tastes much better today. A night in the cooler has helped meld the flavors. Once sauced, the pizzas are studded with smoky brisket, topped with mozzarella and jack, and slid into the convection oven. I pluck a few floury measuring cups from the prep table and drop them in the sink for Baxter.

Nobody told Baxter to wash the dishes. But nobody invited him to join in the cooking, either. If you shake a jar of sand, the larger grains know to rise; the smaller grains know to fall. Baxter is a sex offender, and like fine silt he knows his place. He reaches into the steaming basin and pulls out a pastry cutter which he scours with the green side of a sponge more thoroughly than is necessary. Soap suds dribble down his arm. He drops the cutter into the scolding rinse water and extracts next a whisk. For his dinner companion he chose a super model, but he didn’t put down a food, said he couldn’t think of anything to cook. When Mrs. Eller pressed him to recall his favorite childhood meal he began to ramble, said that his family never served a particular dish on any particular night—say meatloaf on Fridays or pot roast on Sundays—and Mrs. Eller nodded kindly as though she understood, though she didn’t, nobody did. He interrupted Watson’s celebrity dinner a moment later to tell us that his mother used to make the best green beans with bacon, how he loved his mother’s green beans with bacon. But green beans with bacon isn’t a meal, it’s a side dish, and, anyway, nobody gave a shit. Watson turned back to the group. He’d grill steak for Charles Brenneman. He didn’t mind having dinner with another man.

“I see old Baxter’s at the sink again.”

“Yes,” I say. “He’s becoming intimately familiar with that sink. He could probably tell you the exact temperature of the water.”

Bailey chuckles. He surrendered only six months ago and is still new to the system. He spends most of his time walking the track. Fast. He walks like he’s late, like he’s going somewhere. He once told me he walked thirty-two miles in one weekend. Of all the inmates in the class he’s the only man who didn’t choose to cook for a celebrity. Instead, he chose his wife. He’s stubborn, still new to the system.

I ask after Bailey’s two daughters and after his wife who recently underwent gall bladder surgery.

“She’s all right. They’re doing just fine.” And then, still smiling, he adds, “She doesn’t wear her ring anymore.”

Strangely, this satisfies me.

“Here they come now,” I say turning Bailey’s attention toward the kitchen. The pizzas are being pulled from the oven and laid to cool on racks. The room smells of smoke and onions.

“So good make you wanna slap yo’ momma,” Watson says.

“So good make you wanna slap the warden,” Stuart says.

“Pizza or not,” Bailey mumbles,” I’d still slap the warden.”

While the pizzas cool, the cheesecakes are removed from the cooler and liberated from their spring-form pans, which Baxter promptly scoops up and carries back to the sink. The cakes are cut into eighths, the pizzas into quarters. The food is plated, and in the final moment Taylor ladles a shiny blob of crimson strawberries over each cake slice.

My pizza is so heavy with brisket that I have to raise the plate to my face and push the slice into my mouth. The cheese burns my tongue; the brisket it sweet and smoky and good. I could eat just the meat by itself, and I say so to the table. Joe nods. Lugo says the cheesecake tastes different, something he can’t put his finger on. Santos is quiet.

“Sometimes,” Joe says, “when I’m in the kitchen I forget I’m in prison.” And though we all know this isn’t true, that we could never forget where we are, where we each stand, we know what he means.

Baxter meanwhile has returned to his place at the sink. He drops a stack of custard- and crimson-smeared plates into a freshly-drawn water bath. Despite not having played a hand in preparing any of the food, he still wears a hair net. Ever hopeful. I collect my table’s dishes and cups and forks and set them on the counter at Baxter’s elbow. I pick up a towel.

“I’ll dry.”

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In The World

When the next riot breaks out I know where I’ll hide. If I’m in the dormitory, I will crawl beneath my bunk. The corner walls should box me in nicely. If I’m on the rec yard, I will climb a tree. I’ve never climbed a tree, but I could do so in a pinch if properly motivated. If when the next riot breaks out I’m realigning a wind turbine shaft, I will duck inside the soldering classroom across the hall. The room has sat vacant since the instructor retired last year. The dusty floor is littered with cardboard, and husks of paint hang from the water-damaged ceiling. There’s an empty cabinet in there that is just my size.

Guys still talk about the riot that happened here years ago, which erupted after a man jumped ahead in line at the showers. Of course riots are never caused by a single event. They follow a succession of grievances, occur at the height of tensions, and there are always tensions between the blacks and Hispanics. I don’t know why. I once asked a black inmate why blacks kill blacks. He explained hostility within his race dates back to slavery and the resentment between the “House” and “Field Niggers.” The domestic help thought the field hands inferior; the field hands thought the domestic help uppity. “As soon as a black man gets a dollar, there’s another black man who wants to take it away.” I wonder if tension between the blacks and Hispanics isn’t of the same desperation: two disparaged classes of people trying to claw atop the other.

Whatever the reason, the tension is there and it only takes a disagreement over a shower stall to trigger a full-scale war. So when word got around last week that the blacks and Mexicans were beefing over a TV, the majority opinion was that we were due for another riot. The compound was locked down for a day while staff investigated. Excited by the possibility of bloodshed and bored by our afternoon confinement, stories of the previous riot were unearthed and retold with a kind of morbid glee. Strangely what frightened me most in these retellings wasn’t the violence but the widespread vandalism. Lockers were kicked in. Clothes were stolen. Music players were swept into a pile and flushed down the toilet. Photo albums were defaced. Pictures of men’s wives and children disappeared.

“When I found out about the pictures, it made me sick,” Jack said. Jack is my neighbor six bunks over. He was here during the last riot, though his locker and photos were spared. “I told my old lady to stop sending them. If someone got a hold of her’s or my son’s pictures, it would kill me.”

That afternoon of the investigation I pulled my own photo album from the bottom of my locker. I don’t look at it often. On the first page is a picture of the men in our family spanning three generations, taken years ago when my grandfather still possessed his mind, my father his two sons, my brother and I our freedom. My father smiles into the middle distance, blithely unaware.

“Are you in the world?” I turned to see Joe sitting on the bunk behind me sipping a Coke.

“Just visiting.” I flipped to the next page: a photo of my niece and nephews dressed in Easter pastels. The oldest, four at the time, holds his toddling sister in his lap. The middle boy holds a red fishing pole. All three look like my brother. Jack didn’t offer to tell me what happened to the pictures of children, and I didn’t ask. I am a coward.

Despite the fear of having his pictures stolen, Jack keeps a single photo of his sixteen-year-old son and the boy’s mother tucked inside his Bible. Jack, a professed lover of whores and meth, who dons a swastika tattoo on his shoulder, reads his Bible every night before bed. Jack is like that. He surprises you. One night after lights out I returned from the bathroom to find him sitting in the dark, a heavy gilded volume open in his lap. He looked at me. Light? I mouthed. He flicked on a book lamp which, until then, I hadn’t noticed had been secured to the top of the Bible. Having answered my question he flicked the light off. Whether he was reading or in his own world I wasn’t sure.

It is possible, for those with top bunks, to sit up in bed and see through the barred windows on the other side of the room the city of Big Spring at the bottom of the hill. Jack told me he can see the Holiday Inn where families of the incarcerated stay during their visits, though his own family has never stayed there, has yet to visit him. The prison single-handedly keeps that hotel in business. From my own bunk, however, the only landmark I can make out with any certainty among the crouching buildings and industrial debris is the city’s water tower, a hulking white monster like something out of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds.

One evening Jack had me follow him to the highest point on the compound. We climbed a dirt hill past signs warning us we were Out of Bounds. When we reached the top he told me to turn around. The sun was setting then, and the world was the inside of an heirloom copper pot, all teal and pink and bronze.

“I come here sometimes,” Jack said. Jack is like that. I asked him what he thought of the rumors that we were headed for another riot.

“These Mexicans,” he said, “they think they run the prison.”

The Mexicans congregated around Garza’s bunk the night of the lock down. Bully, who has a bulldog tattooed on his scalp, brought his amp. Joe nodded his head to the music, old-school hip-hop that he said reminded him of the world. It was Bully who mentioned riots. He said at another prison he watched a man get his head stomped flat. Should anyone have believed he was exaggerating, he sandwiched his hands together, one pressed on top of the other: “Flat.”

Six bunks to my left Jack stared up at his bed number painted on the ceiling. Across the room and out the window the world was dark. The red eye of the water tower terrorized the people. Flat. I didn’t know it was possible to level a skull with one’s boot. Sometimes it’s my naivety more than anything that frightens me.

“You in the world again?” Joe caught me staring out the window. He smiled, kept nodding his head to the beat.

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We decided, my brother and I, to kill our father. We decided this for no other reason than to satisfy our own curiosity, to see how much shame, humiliation, disappointment a man can take before he crumbles.

Mine would be the more involved and arguably more crafty method, a steady accumulation of academic and professional achievements designed to lull our father into a false sense of paternal victory. For twenty-three years I would cultivate a Good Son image, excelling in school, graduating at the top of my class, landing the esteemed job and handsome salary. Then—this is the good part—in the midst of success, at the height of our father’s pride, I would emerge like an awakened sleeper cell to deliver the psychological karate chop that is the incarceration of his youngest, most promising son.

My older brother has never been one for premeditation. His weaponry in our joint patricide would be sustained aimlessness and wandering ambition. There would be the meandering career path with pit stops in culinary arts, the army, and, much to our father’s bafflement, motorcycle racing. Then would come the shotgun marriage—rather predictable in my opinion—followed by the conception of grandchildren whose inclinations would be to destroy their grandparents’ furniture and houseplants.

But my brother’s latest coup, I must admit, is more clever, more ingenious, more sadistic than all my years of calculated cunning. Our seventy-one-year-old father has said that his only wish is to live long enough to see his youngest son get out of prison. And now, inexplicably, his oldest son has been arrested.

I expected the circumstance of both his sons being locked up to leave a visible dent in his exterior. His arms, his entire lower half, somehow, seem weighed down and his eyes are hooded, but otherwise he looks the same as when he visited last month. He’s more resilient than I thought.

“I don’t understand your brother,” he says. My father and I are standing in line for the microwave, cold vending machine sandwiches in our hands. At the front of the line a Hispanic woman heats baby back riblet sandwiches, one for herself and for each of her four children. I point to the wrapper on my hamburger. “Look,” I tease. “Mine has a ‘hearth-baked’ bun.”

“I just don’t understand it,” he says again. “He saw what happened to you. He was sitting right there in the friggin courtroom when the judge gave you twelve years. I could understand him screwing around with another woman, but with a sixteen year old?”

The symmetry is beautiful, cruel: I look at pictures of kids; my brother sleeps with them. It’s the kind of thing that makes a man question every move he’s ever made as a father.

“I heard his mug shot made the six o’clock news.” A friend who saw the report said they mispronounced our last name.

“Jesus,” Dad says. “I hope like hell your grandparents didn’t see it. That’s all they watch is local news.”

I tried to imagine what my brother might have looked like in his portrait of shame, what expression he might have worn, but I can see nothing beyond his close-set eyes, blue-gray like our father’s, receding hairline, and button mushroom nose. In my own mug shot I had looked like a predator, someone’s creepy uncle with hard candy in his pocket.

“I don’t get the draw,” he continues. “I honestly have never understood the appeal of these young girls. How does a sixteen year old satisfy a man? She has no experience.”

The Hispanic woman at the microwave is soothing her son who’s burned himself on a freshly-nuked sandwich. He’s ten and wears a diamond stud in one ear. He dries his cheek with the bottom of his shirt revealing brown smooth belly. He has an outie. I look away.

“Well, you don’t know necessarily that she wasn’t experienced,” I say.

“No, not necessarily. You never know nowadays.” He tears a small vent in the corner of his sandwich wrapper. “But that doesn’t make it right. And you certainly can’t make the girl out to be a hussy in court.”

“No. Certainly not.”

By the time we’ve heated our food and reclaimed our seats the visitation room has filled considerably. My father and I slide our chairs over to accommodate a mother and her incarcerated son. Spring Break is here. School’s out, and the seats and aisles are crawling with children. A nearby TV blares cartoons, the newer more modern kind with anatomically unrecognizable characters, muted palettes, and hard edges that have never known the finesse of human hands. The flashing screen, the high octane children, my brother’s arrest—it’s exhausting.

“So how is he?” I bite into my burger. The hearth-baked bun sticks to the roof of my mouth.

“Scared. He called me right before they arrested him, talking all sorts of nonsense.”

“What kind of nonsense?”

“Oh, that he didn’t know what was wrong with him, or why he keeps fucking up. He said he thought about ending it. He’s afraid they’ll kill him if he goes to prison.”

A memory surfaces: My brother and I are sitting in his truck in the courthouse parking lot the day of my sentencing. He’s loosening his tie, laughing even as he wipes his eyes, saying that they got the wrong brother, that he was the bad one, that it should have been him they sentenced to twelve years.

“He’ll be fine,” I lie. “If I can survive, he certainly can.” I reach out to take the empty Ruffles bag from my father but he pulls back, says he isn’t finished with it. He folds it in half, quarters, eighths, unravels the whole thing and begins again.

“You and your brother are polar opposites. He’s a lot like me when I was his age, a bit of a smart ass. He’s liable to react if someone gets slick with him. You on the other hand take after your mother. You’re passive. You leave things lie.”

“How is she, by-the-way?” I called her last night. We talked about the books we were reading, she a history of gardening, I A Short History of Nearly Everything. For fifteen minutes we talked literature, relentlessly, fearful of pauses.

“Your mother’s pretty messed up right now. She doesn’t know if she can go through it again.”

“And you?”

He balls the bag into his fist. “I can’t help but think this is God’s way of paying me back for all the rotten things I’ve done in my life.”

“Nonsense,” I tell him. “That’s not even biblical.” He allows me to take the crinkled chip bag and drop it in the trash pail behind my chair.

At three o’clock the officers announce that visitation is over. My father and I brush the sesame seeds from our laps and stand. His cheek feels cool and rough pressed against mine. We hold on a little longer, a little tighter than usual.

Strangely, just as he and a small group of other visitors are preparing to leave, flashing lights appear in the prison parking lot. An ambulance. The room strains its collective neck as a gurney rolls past the windows, a black inmate lashed to the board. In our quiet wonderment the only sounds heard are those of muffled cartoons. Minutes pass without movement. The building, the entire compound has been locked down for this unexpected medical emergency. From where I and the other inmates stand segregated beside the vending machines awaiting strip searches, I can tell from his posture that my father is impatient to get on the road. The drive back to Dallas is four hours. Finally the radios give the all-clear. Children wave good-bye to their daddies one last time before heading out. The daddies smile, wave back, look away. One confused toddler cries into his mother’s neck.

The last I see of him is the back of his head moving doggedly toward the gates, his silhouette burning red, blue.

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Going Straight

“I figured out how to move the dope to London.”

We were standing at the back of the wind energy classroom regarding the larger of two decommissioned turbines. Or at least I was. Joe’s attention was elsewhere. For the past month he’s been devising a way to ship drugs to Europe, where he heard that ten kilos of heroine can fetch around 70,000 euros. Traveling by plane, he told me, is too risky; an ex-drug felon purchasing air fare tends to raise eyebrows. He’s found a better way.

“Cruise ship,” he said. “You know, one of those family-of-four all-inclusive packages. I can make money and take a vacation at the same time.”

I asked him where he was going to find three conspirators to pose as his family, to which he waved his hand. A trivial matter. Apparently there is no shortage of people willing to swallow a few kilos of dope and risk prison time for a transatlantic cruise, endless buffets, and a small cut of the profit. I imagined Joe arriving at the dock with his family in tow: a black uncle covered in prison tattoos, a jaundiced Hispanic half-sister, and a redheaded youth with nary an intact vein in either arm.

“What happened to the restaurant you wanted to open?” He told me once of an idea he had for a Hooters competitor. It would be called Culos.

“Oh, the restaurant would only be a cover for the dope business.”

“Have you ever considered,” I hesistated, “perhaps, going straight?”

Joe guffawed. “I’m forty years old and have no skills. I’ve been selling drugs since I was ten. It’s the only thing I know.”

Over Joe’s shoulder a single turbine blade arched upward like a dinosaur rib bone stopping just shy of the fourteen-foot ceiling. Last week we dissected the great beast. First we removed the plastic nose cone. Then two men lifted the rotor and composite fiberglass blades from the shaft and leaned the assembly against the wall, careful to avoid hitting the fluorescent lights. Resting on a steel pedestal, the body, or nacelle, of the wind turbine is a menacingly industrial gunmetal gray egg with severe grooves carved over its shell. It looks like something the Soviets might have designed. As we gutted the vessel of its generator, inverter, and circuitry, Mr. Jones rattled off a list of specifications: maximum and minimum operating wind speeds, decibel output, conversion efficiency. This particular model, he said, was capable of outputting two-phase current at 240 volts or three-phase current at 460 volts, for residential and commercial applications respectively, whatever that means.

I might have mentioned to Joe that wind energy is a burgeoning field with plenty of job opportunities. But the prospect of Joe becoming a turbine cowboy is almost as ludicrous as me suggesting he quit hustling drugs. Joe is no more inclined to scale what amounts to a 400-foot lightning rod than I am.

We are, Joe and I, in similar situations. I’ve been tinkering with computers for almost as long as Joe’s been pushing dope. Computers are the only hobby, passion, profession I’ve ever known. My education is in computers. But with the terms of my (life) probation banning me from ever using a computer again, a career change seems inevitable. Even if this heavy-handed, not to mention impractical, restriction were overturned, there aren’t many high-tech companies clamoring to hire ex-felons. Especially not ones convicted of computer sex crimes. This I happen to know.

In late 2010 the company I was working for inadvertently discovered news of my indictment online. My dismissal was a feat in human resourcing agility. The words “child pornography” were never uttered. The HR Coordinator said, with hands pressed flat on the conference room table, fingers spread, that some “information” had come to light that made the company feel “uncomfortable.” I gave no protest, no explanation for my behavior. My only concern was getting the hell out of there to some place where I could grieve and lick my wounds in private. By the time I’d signed my resignation, my belongings were already packed and sitting in a crisp cardboard box at my elbow. Such efficiency! It seemed they were just as eager for me to leave as I was.

At the time I had already pleaded guilty and was awaiting sentencing. It was certain I’d be going to prison in a few months, yet my probation officer insisted I look for work. I updated and posted my resume. It was a fine resume: a four-year technical degree with honors, six years’ experience in the field, a modest but promising portfolio. I received a great deal of interest and went on several interviews, which I enjoyed as they got me off of house arrest for the afternoon. And then one day while sitting in a coffeehouse I got a call from the creative agency representing me. The woman on the phone said she was calling to warn me that some unflattering documents had been published online. “It must be a mistake?” No, I said, as a matter of fact the reports are true. For a minute I thought we’d become disconnected. Then she revived herself and said carefully, and with great sympathy, that her agency could no longer have anything to do with me. She was sweet. She even wished me luck before hanging up, to which I, by dumb reflex, thanked her. I set my phone down and stared into my chai.

Later that week at a mandatory sex offender treatment session, I asked my counselor what his recently released clients now do for a living.

“Well, I believe one young man just recently found a job.” He flipped through a stack of papers in his lap. “Ah, yes. He works at Churches Chicken.”

“Please tell me he’s the manager.”

He moved his finger across the page. “Mmm. No. Drive-thru.”

We went back and forth like this for some time. I slumped deeper into the couch at the mention of each low-wage, low-ambition job. That he had to flip through so many sheets of paper confirmed that many of his clients had yet to find any employment at all. He mentioned that a former doctor was barred from practicing medicine since sex offenders are restricted by law from holding professional licenses. A sex offender cannot even legally cut hair.

At visitations my father sometimes asks me what I plan to do when I get out. I press my napkin into a ball and tell him that my release is still five years’ distant and seemingly implausible. I haven’t any inkling what to realistically expect or plan for. What is certain though is that Joe will have a much easier time cracking back into his former life than I’ll have of rebuilding a legitimate one.

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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.


“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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