Average Joe

The suits from Region came down this month for inspection prompting a slew of renovations and maintenance. The dorms were repainted, the flower beds weeded, the lawns trimmed. That hole in the wall in the rec center was finally patched. In the chow hall the suits milled about the perimeter of the room like museum patrons, hands clasped, their dark expensive shoes reflecting in the freshly waxed floor. I’ve noticed government employees have a particular smell, that of soap and drugstore cologne. I wonder if inmates have a smell.

“Isn’t the food supposed to be better when Region is here?” Jack sniffed at his tomato-and-rice soup and set his spoon down. “I feel sorry for those guys at El Reno. As much hassle as we go through when Region comes to town, imagine what hell those poor bastards went through preparing for the president’s visit. The law must have torn that place apart, not a nail file or shoestring they didn’t confiscate. And even then they kept that prison locked down. I guarantee you not one inmate got within twenty feet of Obama, except the ones they handpicked.”

In an article published the next day detailing the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to a federal prison, the accompanying photo captured Obama speaking with a corrections officer in a remarkably tidy and utterly empty cell block.

“The whole thing’s a publicity stunt,” Jack said. “He’s just groping for some legacy he can leave behind before his term is up.”

Joe is more optimistic. He’s been waiting to hear from the courts whether he qualifies for a sentence reduction under last year’s drug reform legislation. He sees President Obama’s visit to El Reno as a sign that luck is on his side and that even more relief is in the pipeline. He talks about the possibility of increased “good conduct time” and of the federal government bringing back parole, rumors which have been circulating for years. The stress of waiting is killing him. All he can do is worry. He’s abandoned efforts to get into shape and instead spends his days sprawled across the empty bunk below mine eating Little Debbie snack cakes and reading crime fiction and Rolling Stone. Last night he tossed me a cupcake (he hates to eat alone) and asked me more questions about hacking.

“Have you ever heard of an onion router?”

Joe thinks I’m in prison for computer fraud. He thinks I’m some superstar hacker responsible for toppling major corporations. I never encouraged quite so fantastic a lie, but neither did I dispel it. One only needs to throw around a few technical terms like “IP masking” and “blowfish encryption” to convince the layperson he’s an expert. A moderate knowledge of computers is necessary however to satisfy the curiosities of my fellow felons. Men have asked me how to erase their Internet history, how to conceal their identities online, and how to make sure a deleted file really is deleted. Like Joe, these men are already plotting their next scheme.

Often when he grills me about cryptology and the “dark web,” I try to steer Joe toward the possibility of going straight. I asked him why is he so eager for prison reform and winning an early release if he only plans to entangle himself in some other criminal venture—running a brothel, growing hydroponic weed, exporting dope overseas. Now he’s turned his attention to computer fraud. He said I didn’t understand. He said I’d never had a taste of the money, the cars, the houses, the women.

“I can’t go back to being just some average motherfucker,” he said. “I can’t be just an average joe.”

That same week as his visit to El Reno, Obama granted clemency to forty-six nonviolent drug offenders, bringing the total number of commutations under his presidency to eighty-nine. Joe saw this as more evidence that further relief is on the way. He walked into the dorm waving a list of the forty-six men and women, saying, “It’s for real. Something’s gonna happen. Obama’s gonna do something.” Jack pointed out that those released had already served the majority of their lengthy sentences. “Big deal,” he said. “What’s getting out three years early when you’ve already served seventeen? A publicity stunt! All of these people he released were charged with crack cocaine. And they’re black. How does this help me?”

I’m inclined to agree with Jack’s skepticism. He and I have made amends with our time. We’ve spent years adjusting our expectations, honing our routines. That release date which once seemed immeasurable has solidified itself as a permanent fixture in our minds, like a moon, shining and certain. We’ve come too far for false hopes. Look at Joe: sleeping till ten, drinking warm sodas all afternoon, waving around that commutation list as if it were a Polaroid on which his own name might resolve. Jack said even if more reform were passed such relief would likely not affect us, as recent reforms have focused on reducing sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Justice is cyclical, like fashion. The war on drugs has grown tiresome and expensive, and locking up blacks is no longer politically in vogue.

“The big thing now is porn,” Jack said.

I looked away.

“That stuff can be real addictive you know.”

The sex offender population here is indeed growing. Their numbers have swelled so much in recent months that the inmates called a meeting to redraw the boundaries in the chow hall. The whites gave up eight of their tables to accommodate the influx of sex offenders. If more sentencing reform were to pass, Jack said he’d be surprised if it helps any of these men. No congressperson would ever support a bill that gets pedophiles and murderers out of prison quicker. Ironically it is these loathsome men who have the lowest recidivism rates and would, if released, stand the better chance of staying out of prison.

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In Mississippi our routine was to walk the track weekend mornings. It was on one of these walks that Cisco and I invented the game.

“That one there,” I’d say pointing to a lone figure sitting on the empty soccer field, his back against a goal post.

Cisco would squint and consider for a moment the man’s posture, the downward pitch of the head, the assemblage of the hands before giving his verdict: “Solitude.”

“Yes, solitude,” I’d agree. “And that man there, sitting beside the fence?”

“Oh, that’s loneliness. Look at the way he picks at the grass,” Cisco would say. “Definitely loneliness.”

One morning we spotted Brother Eric across the rec yard pacing behind the handball court. He was muttering to himself, likely preparing for that Wednesday’s sermon. We attended his outdoor service once, upon invitation. Sitting there in the grass behind the handball wall with ant-bitten ankles we listened along with some two dozen other men as Brother Eric, treading a line in the dirt, hands clasped behind his back, raged at the earth and at the sky, about what we weren’t sure—floods and spilt blood and baptism by fire. I got the impression we were jurors and he was pleading his case before God.

“Loneliness or solitude?” Cisco pointed to where Brother Eric paced his pulpit, his courtroom.

“That, Cisco,” I said, “is a cry for help.”

It was Jack who months ago suggested we eat breakfast together, thus establishing our current weekend morning routine. Routine, I have learned, is good; it keeps time ticking. Being an early riser it usually falls on me to wake Jack. I am struck at six in the morning by the peacefulness of my sleeping comrades, how soft and utterly void of malice and pretense are their faces. In the dark they more closely resemble the creatures their mothers birthed, though when the lights turn on, like dumping water on a gremlin, they turn into snarling, smoking terrors, bouncing off walls, reeking hijinks and havoc. I often find Jack lying on his side with one arm wrapped around his pillow as if it were a woman. His bare bicep reveals a cross with congruent arms capped in serifs. He told me once of a woman who, upon noticing his tattoo post-coitus, erupted into sobs. Jack asked her what was wrong. She said her family was from Poland; she was Jewish.

I wasn’t sure that morning of our first breakfast how best to wake Jack, whether I should tap his shoulder near his swastika tattoo or his hand which rested precariously close to his slack mouth. Had I done the latter I might have felt his hot breath on my fingers. Instead I shook what I knew with absolute certainty was his blanketed foot. A blanketed foot is inoffensive. A blanketed foot is safe. Later Jack would set a safer precedent by waking me with a firm pat on my mattress. Though once, having failed to stir me from a particularly heavy sleep, Jack grabbed my naked big toe. My eyes shot open. The intimacy startled me.

Intimacies of a more ferocious kind have led the staff to replace our old opaque shower curtains with curtains which are transparent on the tops and bottoms. In the library, the bathroom door has been completely removed from its hinges and, inside, a quarter’s height has been shaved off the tops of the stall doors. All this in an effort to squash illicit rendezvous. Someone quipped that in a few months’ time the soap scum buildup will render the shower curtains opaque again, returning some semblance of privacy. Joe said we should just be grateful we aren’t in state prison where the showers and stalls have no curtains or doors at all. The exposed commodes are so close together that one can share a roll of toilet paper with his shitting neighbor.

How strange to be so crowded and still so alone.

I thought it odd that Jack should have suggested we breakfast together. I thought he might have been angling for my bran cereal. But he confided to me that first morning, leaning over his food tray, that I am the only person here he can stand, quite a compliment coming from Jack, who unabashedly despises everyone. One morning over coffee and green bananas Jack plunked down his spoon and commented on what ugly sonsabitches we were surrounded by. It’s true. I looked around the chow hall at all the misshapen skulls, the squinty beetle eyes, the thin Aryan lips, the balding men still clinging to ponytails, the morbidly obese, the crippled, the toothless. I read somewhere of a study that concluded beyond statistical significance that prisoners are generally less attractive than free-world citizens. (I wonder: is it that ugly people commit more crime, or that ugly people are more likely to go to jail for committing crime? Furthermore: do uglier people get longer sentences than not-so-ugly people?)

“Just look at them,” Jack said. “I could make puppets out of these men. All I’d need is a few yards of felt, some pipe cleaners, wrench noses, and Ping-Pong balls for eyes.”

Aside from smart remarks and occasional rants, Jack and I don’t say much at breakfast. We ask what the other’s plans are for the day; they’re always the same: Jack will work out later in the evening, and I will go running just as soon as I’ve finished my coffee. Though we both exercise regularly, it doesn’t occur to us to do so together. Ours is an informal, loosely committed relationship. We enjoy a comfortable distance. Jack will sometimes pass my bunk on his way to the bathroom and flash me a quizzical thumbs up. Are you all right? Lying with my hands across my stomach, ear buds plugged into my head, eyes settled on the ceiling where my bunk number is stenciled—do I strike him as not all right? I feel sometimes we stand facing each other across a threshold: I raise a thumbs up, and he turns away.

Solitude then is running at dawn, another routine. After breakfast I head to the track, which is shorter than the track I walked with Cisco but wider and better paved. I stretch beside the bleachers, wriggling my fingers in the sandy soil. There is freedom to be had in surrendering to the dirt and sweat and stink. Prior to prison, the last time I ran was in elementary school, back in the days when Physical Education was a serious affair. Our gym coach was an unsmiling butch woman who made us run competitive sprints across the vast, barren field behind the school. I won only once, on a technicality. My opponent, so enthralled with his ten-yard lead, stopped short of the finish line.

Twenty years later, I’m still not very good at running. No doubt if she could see me, my old coach would raise her whistle to her unpainted mouth and lambast me for my deplorable form, my graceless clomping, my lavish, undisciplined breathing (one should breathe through the nose, not the mouth). Still I’ve developed a taste for running, the mindlessness of it, the sated exhaustion that comes afterward. With each lap past the weights pavilion I hear the angry clanking of iron on iron. Jack, who lifts in the evenings, who counts reps and sets and poundage, asks me how many laps, how many miles I’ve run. He asks what’s my best time. I shrug. I tell him that’s not the point.

I pass Bailey on the track most mornings and offer him a sweaty pat on the shoulder (shoulders are safe too). Last weekend at visitation, while his ten-year-old daughter was at the vending machine buying a Milky Way, his wife told him that she filed for divorce. Bailey’s hands, his whole body, trembled so badly that he had to stoop over in his chair and hang his head between his knees. Having been deceived, manipulated, and even extorted in the past, I’ve tried, as a new approach, to keep people at arm’s length, to be as unmovable and impenetrable as concrete. And yet, unbidden, a few men manage to penetrate my pores like creeping, ferocious water. Bailey saturates me with details of his collapsing marriage. Joe weathers me with financial aid questions for his son who is the first in his family to consider college. Even Jack, cold and disagreeable Jack, has come to me with red wet eyes after speaking with his mother on the phone. She told Jack that his teenage son had presented her with a Mother’s Day cake with Happy Mother’s Day—Love Jack piped across the top. Such a good boy.

They say there’s no friendship in prison. They say trust no one. Still, stubbornly, stupidly, we relent.

Bailey says he’ll have to buy a new pair of sneakers soon; the tread on his Reeboks is almost worn smooth, so often does he walk the track. Twenty miles every weekend, at least. A man in his dorm advised him not to sweat his marital troubles too much but instead focus on the few things he can control, like his health. Accordingly, Bailey enrolled in a cardio class. He courted a walking partner. He’s developing a routine. Already I can see the weight is coming off.

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Uncle Pennybags

My brother sent me a Get Out of Jail Free card in the mail. The copy read, Just in case your birthday celebration gets out of hand!

Mark himself just got out on bond. On that first phone call I made to him after his release he told me how awful the food in county jail had been, how for breakfast they had served him watery oatmeal without salt for seven days, how he was so hungry that by the third day he wolfed down anything they set in front of him, and how he had developed a habit of hoarding for later the apples and oranges that came in his lunches.

“I’ve done that too,” I said.

I showed Joe the Get Out of Jail Free card with its gold embossing of a winged Uncle Pennybags fluttering free from a cage. “Just hand it to the officer at the gate,” I said, “and he’ll let you through.” Joe laughed but pointed out that we’re in prison, not jail, and therefore the card is technically invalid.

Though I urged him not to, Joe insisted on making nachos to celebrate my birthday. He bought a filched tomato and onion off a kitchen worker and had me dice them up along with a pickle to create a salsa. The pickle juice he reserved and added to the secret sauce, which also contained, he was kind enough to share, Velveeta squeeze cheese, Sriracha, and mayo. While I gave the sauce a vigorous shaking, Joe layered our bowls with Doritos, tuna, summer sausage, and mozzarella which he grated with the perforated top of a Comet can. If only such ingenuity and culinary talent could be put toward a legitimate venture, a restaurant or food truck. But Joe’s latest post-prison scheme is to grow weed hydroponically (the brothel idea having been apparently nixed). Jack, who has a green thumb and some experience in the matter, was happy to share some pointers. He recommended that Joe set up shop in a rented house in a remote area and to pay his first and last months’ rent up front to keep the landlord at bay. Then during his first two months’ tenancy, before beginning any production, he should turn on all appliances in the house—stove, lights, AC—and leave them running around the clock so later, when the grow lights are brought online, his electricity bill won’t spike and tip off the police. Jack also said it might be a good idea to line the attic with sheets of steel so that any thermal spy cams flying overhead won’t detect the grow lights’ intense and telltale heat signature.

After layering on the salsa, Joe drizzled the nachos with the road cone-orange secret sauce. He handed me a bowl and a Coke. “Happy twenty-ninth,” he said.

Later that evening I called my brother to thank him for the card.

“Sorry it was late,” Mark said. “It’s been hectic around here, what with the kids and dealing with the realtor.”

After his arrest and subsequent bail, Mark and his wife decided it would be best for them to sell their house and skip town. The small community in which they live was scandalized when it came out that one of their residents had been charged with having sex with a minor. And he a police officer no less! People stared in line at the grocer. Cars slowed in front of the house. On one occasion Mark actually ran into the father of the young girl. Mark was at the police station settling some last detail of his bond when the girl’s father stepped up to the adjacent window. Neither man acknowledged the other. Mark simply looked on, his hand pressed flat against the counter, while the clerk went about futzing with the printer. The machine, which by all accounts had been working fine all morning, had suddenly refused to print Mark’s receipt. The clerk mashed some buttons, peered into the printer’s nether regions (the poor dear admitted she wasn’t very good with computers). Was is a paper jam? A faulty driver? A loose cable? She ducked beneath the desk and clucked at the mess of wires there. In his peripheral Mark observed the girl’s father scribbling his signature across a stack of ominous legal documents, presumably the affidavit and testimonies that would eventually send Mark to prison. The printer meanwhile yawned into life—a loose cable afterall—and proceeded through a slow and rigorous battery of tests and maintenance checks: a realigning of the print head, a cleaning of the nozzle, a priming of the belts, springs, and pulleys. Mark stared ahead, palms sweating. Finally, to confirm the integrity of its labors the printer produced, not a receipt, but a test page, a methodically plotted epistle proudly emblazoned with the manufacturer’s logo and a full-color stock image of a young girl—a girl whose resemblance to the one Mark fingered in his patrol car was only passing—blowing out a forest of birthday candles, her petite blonde head enveloped in a billowing cloud of yellow, cerulean, and magenta balloons, an image specifically selected by the manufacturer to exploit the printer’s impressive color capabilities, its crisp 600 dpi output, its stunning lifelike reproduction of skin tones, which, it should be said, is no easy task when dealing with the subtle hues and transparencies of youthful flesh. Meanwhile the girl’s father (that of the victim, not of the model) continued to condemn with his pen the perpetrator standing at his elbow, whose moist brow had then begun to itch, though Mark dared not scratch, dared not move, for his hands felt as though they rested not on a simple countertop but on the pressure-sensitive detonation switch of a bomb that would, upon so much as a hastily drawn breath, blow himself and the entire building sky-high, which, come to think of it, might have been preferable.

“Ah, here we are,” said the clerk sliding Mark his receipt. He took the document, wished the woman a good day, and fled.

“I have to get out of this town,” Mark said on the phone. “It’s getting to where I can’t pump gas without running into someone.”

“Is the house packed?”

“We still lack the attic and the kids’ toys. Lucy’s got it in her head that we should take the deck. She doesn’t think it’s very fair that we should leave behind a brand new deck that we never had the chance to enjoy. I told her you can’t just rip up a deck and take it with you. For Christ’s sake, it’s flagstone.”

I resisted the urge to ask my brother what he intended to do with my own furniture. Before coming to prison I left in his care several pieces, including the heavy, Italian-made drafting table our father once labored over as a young advertising artist. Instead I asked if he’d heard from his lawyer.

“No, I haven’t heard from anybody.”

“Well, maybe this is a case of no news is good news,” I offered, though he didn’t hear me because just then his three-year-old daughter had begun to cry.

“No,” he continued, putting the phone back to his ear. “The only time I hear from the lawyer is when he’s asking for more money. I don’t know where he pulls these figures from—$15,000 for representation, another five grand per charge.”

“It’s nothing like what we remember from our civics textbooks in high school, is it, Mark. All those pretty diagrams with the legislative and judicial and executive branches of government stacked neatly one on top of the other. Checks and balances. The books never mentioned lawyers, sentencing guidelines, or probation. No mention of a sex offender registry.”

On the other line the girl’s screaming rose to decibels usually associated with murder. Mark seemed not to notice. I read once that mothers are programmed to recognize their children’s cries. I wondered if the inverse is true too, if parents aren’t equally capable of tuning out their children.

“The more I research prison,” Mark said, “the less I understand it.”


“I mean it’s basically a long timeout. They put you in this tiny box and say, ‘Okay, now you wait here.’ And then you sit around on your ass, eating your three meals a day, until the time comes when someone taps you on the shoulder and says, ‘All right, you can leave now.’ It’s bizarre when you think about it.”

Beside the phone, beneath the placard forbidding vandalism, someone had begun to peel back paint from the wall.

“And these sentences they hand out are so arbitrary. You’re basically at the mercy of whatever judge you get. This one cop molested his teenage daughter and got probation.”

The paint was high-gloss, institution gray, a shade whose sole purpose lies in its ability to conceal dirt. It peeled away in large springy patches like dead skin off a sunburn. “Probation, huh?”

“And then I read about this other guy with a charge similar to mine. The girl was sixteen. The judge sentenced him to eight years in the state.”

“That’s not so bad. That’s only—what?—four years served.”

Only four years! I can’t be away from my kids for four years.”

“No, I guess not,” I said. The swatch I’d been working on had grown to the size of a dollar bill. I noticed last week at visitation while my father was feeding bills into the vending machine that the fives are now purple. They looked like foreign currency, like Monopoly money. When had they changed to purple?

“Then again,” Mark said, “probation may just as well be a jail sentence. From what I’ve read online, probation is basically the same as prison.”

“They’re not the same.”

“That’s not what I read. I read probation’s rough. You’re not even allowed to drink when you’re on probation. I mean, how can they possibly expect you not to—”

“Prison is nothing like probation, Mark.” I tucked the phone between my ear and shoulder and began pulling at the paint with both hands as though it were saran wrap. “They aren’t the same at all. Not even close. I’ve been on probation, Mark, back before sentencing. Remember? I had an ankle monitor and a nine o’clock curfew. I know what probation is like, and it’s nothing like prison, okay? Twelve years, Mark. The judge gave me twelve years, for pictures, and life probation on top of that.”

“Well, I read you can probably get that changed—”

“And stop with the research, already. You’re like one of those people who Googles their pimple and walks away convinced he’s dying of cancer. Just relax. It’s out of your hands.”

“Maybe,” Mark said. “But this not knowing is killing me.”

The paint finally snapped off in my hands, knocking me back a step. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Whatever they give you will be far less than what I got.”

I wiped the dry-wall dust from my hands. The line went quiet. Even his little girl had shut up.

“I’m a good father,” he said finally. “I can’t lose my kids.”

“You’re not going to lose them, Mark.”

“It’s not fair, for their sakes. It’s not fair to the kids.”

To the kids who call him Dad. To the girl he laid with. To the boys whose pictures I collected.

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Espinosa crosses the cage in four strides and walks into the wall. He turns around, takes another four strides and walks into the opposite wall. Back and forth he continues, colliding into the cinderblock, not hard enough to harm himself, but with just enough force to make me wonder if I shouldn’t note his behavior in the log book. With each collision the Velcro on his smock tears. I recall reading that the Velcro’s inventor received his inspiration while picking burs from his pants. Bump—scratch! Bump—scratch!

In the log I write, simply, “Pacing.”

Earlier in my shift, before he began walking into walls, Espinosa told me of the time he got picked up by police in Mexico. They beat him, as they do most everyone they arrest. In Mexico beatings are as common to the intake process as fingerprinting. After they beat him they interrogated him, and when he refused to tell the police who he was working for they tortured him. They kicked him, broke three ribs. They tied him to a chair, covered his head in a sack, and poured water over him. They doused his hands with alcohol and set them on fire.

“Then they put the grass mat-cheen to my feet.”

“Grass machine—a lawn mower?”

“No, the mat-cheen for the weeds.” He swung his arms up and down over his bare feet like he was shaking out a blanket.

“A weed whacker?”

“Weed whacker, yes! They put the weed whacker to my feet!”

After they broke him, an officer approached Espinosa from behind. A soft small hand reached out and touched his face. They told him they had his daughter; they would kill her if he didn’t cooperate. He never saw the child’s face, but he swore the hand was real. It was warm. It moved. It caressed his wet cheek.

I asked Espinosa if the seizures began after the beating he took while in custody, but he said the seizures began later, after a head injury during a prison riot. According to the log book he suffered an attack just yesterday morning. The companion noted that the nurse responded promptly but that, for liability reasons, she wasn’t allowed to enter the cage without a second officer present. So for fifteen minutes she and the companion watched Espinosa jerk and shudder on the cage floor, his head knocking against the coving, until another officer arrived.

Bump—scratch! Bump—scratch!

“Are you all right?” I ask him.

“I’m angry,” he says, and before I can ask why he’s upset he breaks stride and raises both his arms to lean against the cage partition, inches from my face, a move that startles me more than his walking into walls and causes me to lean back in my chair.

“It was my grandmother; not my mother.” This he directs to the open doorway over my shoulder.

At first I don’t understand. I turn to look out the door but see nothing. Then from somewhere down the hall, likely near the x-ray room with its posted notice warding away pregnant women, I hear the nurse talking to the doctor. She’s telling him, incorrectly it seems, that it’s Espinosa’s mother who’s died.

“That nurse makes me think she doesn’t listen to me.”

Espinosa resumes pacing and strikes up a tune.

“Damn all those beautiful girls!” he croons to the fluorescent lights. “You got me suicidal when you say it’s over!”


When dialed to full brightness the fluorescent lights in the watch room buzz like locusts at high noon in July, which is why many officers and some companions keep them dimmed, though they’re not supposed to. The lights are supposed to be turned up at all times, even at night, so that every corner of the cage stays illuminated and nothing is left to chance. In training one of the companions who volunteered at his last yard told us about a man who pinched the cellophane wrappers from his sandwiches over several meals and braided himself a rope beneath the blanket. The companion might not have noticed anything accept that the man’s face began to turn blue. This is why the lights must stay on.

Today, however, the lights are not on. They were dimmed when I arrived for my shift, and I haven’t bothered to readjust them. Behind the steel partition Freeman appears as a vague shadow sulking across the mattress. Though it goes against my directives, and could potentially be dangerous, the desire to be merciful, to give Freeman a break from the incessant chatter and scrutiny of the fluorescents, to be nice, is terribly strong, so I leave the lights turned down. I wonder if black men turn blue when they suffocate.

“Are you staring at me?” the shadow says.

“That’s the point. I’m supposed to watch you.”

He laughs without humor. “Most of the guys just look up once in awhile. You’re making me uncomfortable.”

“How about I look at the wall above you instead, that way I can keep you in my sight.” A compromise.

I tip my head back and let my eyes wander the height of the cage. The meshing has been painted and repainted so many times that the once rhomboid openings have shrunk to ellipses. Behind the steel curtain, Freeman is only a few shades darker than the gloom around him.

“Are you still staring at me?”


“You’re making me uncomfortable, dawg.”

Just before noon the psychologist arrives with two food trays. She asks me to eat my lunch in the hall while she visits with Freeman. This is a novel experience, eating alone instead of in a crowded chow hall, and one I decide I like very much. I cut my meatballs in half and chew slowly, basking in the companionable silence. At the far end of the corridor a narrow pane set in the emergency exit offers a Rothko interpretation of the rec yard: tall swatches of pearly sky and copper earth, a pewter chain-link horizon.

Across the hall the watch room door opens and the psychologist waves me back inside. Freeman appears in better spirits after talking with the doctor. He tells me after she leaves that he feels he can pull through now. “I can do this,” he says. I notice that the doctor has turned the lights up. The locusts have returned, but Freeman doesn’t seem to mind. He looks small and fragile in the light.

I consult the log book, though for privacy reasons I don’t expect the psychologist to have left any details of their conversation. I flip back to the shift before mine, to yesterday’s shifts, to the shifts before that. One entry catches my eye. It’s a comment Freeman made to the companion the morning he was admitted. “Next time I’ll cut deeper.”


The psychologist warned us that Mr. Reed has a history of cutting. The doctor’s professional habit is to refer to all inmates as misters, which makes us sound older, more respectable, and like she’s selling us insurance. Mr. Reed however is no older than twenty and looks even younger. He has dark mermaid hair, black beady eyes, and a rabbit mouth. The fuzz above his upper lip looks more like dirt than a mustache.

During the briefing a companion asked with what exactly Mr. Reed might cut himself. After all, he has only a smock and blanket; his sack meals contain no utensils. By way of an answer the doctor recounted the time she was counseling an inmate who suddenly pulled a razor from between his toes and set to work on his wrists. This reminded me of a similarly troubling though innocuous encounter of my own in which I caught a man I was observing sucking a fireball. He in fact had a whole stash of candy beneath the mattress. I asked where he got it, but he just smiled and shrugged.

“Who knows how he got the razor,” said the doctor. “A kitchen worker might have slipped it in his lunch, an officer or companion might have given it to him, he might have snuck it in himself. You never know what’s going to happen on a watch. Just be on the lookout.”

I look up from my cheese sandwich. Mr. Reed is still asleep. Where his heart is the blanket rises infinitesimally. His own sack lunch sits beside me on the floor, uneaten. According to the logs, he’s refused all meals for the past two days. He says he’s fasting. It’s about the only thing he’s said to anybody, though some companions have noted occasional noises—”bleeps,” squeaks, and at least one guffaw, as if a joke were written on the ceiling.

Just as I’m peeling into an orange the nurse arrives for her hourly check-in. The jangle of her keys causes Mr. Reed to stir.

“Mr. Reed,” I call out, adopting the doctor’s formality, though I’m not sure why. “Mr. Reed, the nurse is here. Wouldn’t you like to eat?”

The kid lifts his head and blinks at me mole-like. “No. I’m good.”

“Mr. Reed, are you sure? I’ve got a yummy cheese sandwich here on stale bread. And look—fruit.”

After a moment’s consideration he folds and allows the nurse to pass him his food through the bean slot. As he stoops to pick up a dropped mustard packet, I catch a sliver of backside poking out from behind his smock, a luminous crescent, God’s fingernail.

The psychologist encourages us to talk to the men on suicide watch should they feel like talking. In training we’re taught to ask questions, listen actively, to be a sounding board by which they can ruminate on their problems and hopefully arrive at a less dire solution than death. Whether this works, I don’t know. I’ve never tried it. Asking a fellow inmate how the passing of his grandmother or how his wife’s filing for divorce makes him feel strikes me as insincere and hypocritical; sometimes I stare through the round eyelets that were once rhomboids and wish it were me in that cage, if just for the peace and quiet. I wouldn’t mind the buzzing lights.

But today I decide I need to save this man, because he accepted my food, because he’s just a kid, because I’ve seen him in the chow hall sitting near the hot and cold bars with the other sex offenders.

“I saw your mom.”

Reed looks up from his cheese sandwich.

“I saw her at visitation. You were both standing in front of me. I mean, I think it was your mom.” She had the same rabbit mouth. She asked her son if he wasn’t feeling better now, and, with an odd detachment, he nodded at the windows and said, yes, he was doing better.

“Yeah,” Reed says now with the same detachment, as though he were idly pulling petals from a daisy. “That’s my mom.”

“She seemed nice,” I say.

“She’s pretty nice,” he agrees and continues nibbling his sandwich.

I think of other things I want to say to him—She seemed concerned. She seems to really love you. I haven’t seen my mom in two years.—but the moment passes and suddenly I’m very tired, too tired to say anything or save anybody. I just want this shift to end.

After lunch Reed sits on the edge of the mattress and screams.

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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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