The Meeting

The speakers called a meeting in the dorm. All inmates of every race and affiliation—blacks, whites, Hispanics, sex offenders, Native Americans, the one Asian—was encouraged to attend. Over a hundred men crowded into the largest of the living quarters, squeezing between bunks and lockers, spilling over into the bathroom, pressing together so tightly that not one of us could turn around without bumping elbows with his neighbor. Behind me a man risked this very maneuver and knocked an alarm clock off a locker and onto the floor. The commotion attracted the gaze of the meeting’s emcee, the Speaker for the Blacks, whose massive head protruded from the dense canopy of bunk beds at the center of the room like an herbivorous dinosaur’s. I’m convinced size is a prerequisite to being elected speaker. They are all giants, Gullivers among Lilliputians. The one exception is the Mexican Speaker. Victims of cold immutable genetics, the Mexicans were forced to waive the height requirement. They might have chosen Peña as their representative, who is, at six-foot-three, the outlier among his race. But Peña is serving an eight-year bid for child pornography, thus the sex offenders claimed him for themselves.

The alarm clock righted, the room settled, the Black Speaker opened the meeting with a recap of events past. Two weeks ago renovations began on the ailing dormitories, displacing inmates and causing massive reshuffling and overcrowding. Our own dorm almost doubled in load. Space is tight, tensions are high (particularly among the blacks and Mexicans). And so in formalizing the facts of our weary existence, the Speaker arrived at the basis for the meeting, which was to reiterate old house rules and establish new ones in an aim to ease friction.

“The first thing—”

The Speaker paused. Beyond the locked door the keys of the law jangled. The room stiffened. Organizing is illegal. The Speaker waited for the officer to pass before continuing.

“The first thing we need to address,” he said, “is the noise. I’m speaking especially about the late-night talking and card playing at the ironing board.”

Imperceptibly, all eyes shifted to the Mexicans. I leaned into Jack’s ear. “I hope someone’s translating this.”

“Now, nobody likes to be woken up while they’re trying to sleep. We’ve got guys complaining about the noise as far away as the back of the room.” The back of the room nodded. “If we have to live with one another, we have to learn to respect one another. When the lights go out, we go out.”

Jack stood in front of me with his arms crossed. He hates these meetings, hates prison politics—the alliances, the frivolousness, the self-importance. He resents speakers and reps and shot callers who speak on behalf of others. He sees gangs and affiliations as bullies slinging around their collective weight while playing refuge to the weak and stupid who would, on their own, amount to nothing for all their lack of sense and respect.

Respect: the only law among the lawless.

“Now, about the shitters,” the Speaker said. “Historically the first two stalls have been pissers and the other four shitters. But with all the newcomers and overcrowding and such, the line to take a shit has been out the door. We’ve decided to change this. From now on the first stall will be for pissing and the rest for shitting. We’ve added one more shitter, you see.”

The crowd murmured approvingly.

“Speaking of the bathroom,” the Speaker continued, “this pissing on the floor needs to stop. If your dick can’t reach the urinal, sit on the toilet. Now, I hear some of you laughing in the back. I’m not trying to be funny. There’s no excuse for that stuff. It’s disgusting, and it isn’t right that these orderlies—your fellow men—have to mop up your mess.”

Jack, whose job it is to clean the bathroom, nodded vigorously.

“This next problem isn’t directed toward the newcomers necessarily; we’ve been having this issue since before you all got here. But to be fair, I think now would be a good time to remind everyone that toilet paper does not belong in the urinals. That shit don’t flush.”

Jack has complained of men throwing toilet paper, sweetener packets, and other trash in the urinals. He suspects the Mexicans.

“Toilet paper goes in the toilet; not in the urinals, not on the floors, not in the sinks. This is our home. We need to treat our home and each other with respect.” The Speaker took a breath. “Now,” he said. “About the showers.”

The crowd shifted from one foot to the other. The showers have long been a contentious issue. Only four serviceable stalls exist in a dorm of over a hundred men. It was a disagreement over the showers that kicked off the riot years ago between the blacks and Mexicans. Someone was accused of jumping the line. A fight erupted and spread across the compound like a flame set to dry brush. Shitters and pissers aside, the showers were the crux of the meeting.

“From now on,” the Speaker said, “there’ll be no more saving places in line. You’re only in line when you’re standing in line.”

The Speaker swiveled his great head between all four corners of the room. The men said nothing.

“And I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t take me no forty minutes to shower. I understand some of you like to shave and wash your clothes in there and whatnot. But we’ve got too many men and not enough stalls to be doing that. Let’s try to limit ourselves to ten minutes. I think ten minutes is long enough to get cleaned up, don’t you?”

A Mexican man near the ironing board raised his hand to object. Still sore from having been pinned the source of late-night noisemaking and seeing the shower stipulations as yet another subtle accusation, the man said to the Speaker, by way of a translator, that he didn’t see why he shouldn’t be allowed to wash his clothes, or do anything else in the shower for that matter, so long as he finished within the allotted ten minutes.

The Speaker nodded sympathetically. Yes, he agreed. A perfectly valid point. What a man does in the shower is his own business. And then, sensitive to the frustrated histories between his and his dissenter’s respective races and aware also of an inmate’s natural prickliness towards authority, the Speaker softened his tone and added diplomatically that the rules, argued and agreed upon by all the speakers, were not meant to “come down” on anybody but to ensure a smooth and peaceable coexistence under these less-than-desirable circumstances.

The Mexican, buoyant from having his voice heard, pressed on. And another thing, he added. He didn’t appreciate the guys outside the showers playing clock and chiming out the minutes. He didn’t like to be rushed and he was perfectly capable, thank you, of telling time.

“Yes, of course,” said the Speaker. “That’s all in fun, I’m sure. At any rate, remember, men—respect gets respect.”

In the days following the meeting, relations in the dorm improved. People said “excuse me” and “thank you” and held doors for one another. The bathrooms were kept reasonably clean, and the line to the showers shortened. The Mexicans put away their card games at lights out. Jack said it wouldn’t last, and it didn’t. When the sting of the switch fades, old habits return. It wasn’t but a week before the litter piled back up on the bathroom floor and in the urinals. Nighttime merrymaking resumed. Peña, the Speaker for the Sex Offenders, was called on to confront one of his constituents for having spent an hour in the shower, a scandal that led to hours of gleeful speculation into what obscenely terrible things the man might have been doing to himself. And Jack, who’s now considering a job change, pledged bodily harm to whomever has been leaving behind Ramen and other bits of food in the bathroom sinks.

He suspects, of course, the Mexicans.

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Summers in West Texas: The gym bulletin boards are plastered with diagrams of the human form, the head turned, palms forward, feet splayed, filled as a vessel with water, sixty-five percent full, to just below the shoulders. There are reminders to wear sunscreen, UV heat indexes gradating from blue to mauve, sophisticated charts specifying how much water to consume per hour according to body weight, outside temperature, and workout intensity. One flier shows a spindly character, face tomato-red, with a curlicue of smoke rising from his head and steam shooting from his ears. Dizziness, nausea, the inability to produce tears—Do you know the signs of heat exhaustion?

The dorms offer little respite from the heat. The buildings are old and poorly insulated, and the heavily taxed AC system blows only tepid air. Fans dispersed throughout the living quarters, including one sitting on the bathroom floor, an obvious hazard, are ineffective, though their whining does help drown out bodily noises. By six o’clock every evening the forty-gallon-capacity ice machine on our floor is empty. Nights are especially uncomfortable. We lie awake in our underwear, slick with sweat, the sheets pulled down to our feet. I’m still awake sometimes when the officers walk through for the midnight count. They count us throughout the early morning, at twelve, three, and five o’clock. I like to think that the reason they count us so often is because we are something valuable and precious to them, an obsessive curator’s collection of fine Fabergé eggs or stuffed rare birds.

Renovations are set to begin this month on the aging dormitories. The AC will likely be one focus of the project. Construction will occur piecemeal, floor-by-floor, and, in Jack’s words, be like one prolonged tooth extraction.

“It’ll be expensive, drawn out, and half-assed. Remember when they renovated the bathroom? It took them three months to paint the walls and floor and within a week they were peeling again.”

Already the administration has begun the thorny process of relocating inmates ahead of the construction. It’s like figuring out seating arrangements for a wedding reception in which none of the guests get along; there’s no pleasing anybody. Everyone is afraid of who they might get stuck with for a neighbor or bunkmate. And there is also the fear, a very real fear, that moving at once so many inmates, nearly 150 men, will chafe the already delicate racial and political balances.

On that first day of reshuffling I hadn’t yet been back to the dorm to know if I’d received a bunkmate, though Jack was eager to break the news. Setting his tray opposite of me in the chow hall, Jack gleefully suggested I start brushing up on my Spanish.

“Pedro doesn’t speak a lick of English. Not a lick. No hablá Inglés.”

“He’s enjoying this,” I said to Jay sitting beside me.

“And you, Jay, are now living in a ghetto.”

Jay dropped his hot dog in his tray. “You’re pulling my leg.”

“No, sir. I wouldn’t pull your leg about this. They stuck all the blacks in your corner. Old School now sleeps to your left, Gangster lives beside the window to your right, and they put that white guy who thinks he’s black in the bunk above you.” Jack smeared a tater tot through a puddle of ketchup and popped it in his mouth. “Let’s just put it this way: you’ll be the first to know who wins the Essence Award.”

Pedro wasn’t around when I returned to the dorm, but evidence of his existence was strung like tinsel from the frame of what had once been solely my bunk. Towels and washrags hung at one end and at the other three pressed uniforms and a toiletries kit. A sack filled with Tupperware and seasoning bottles dangled idly in the space between our beds like a mobile. Pedro appeared just as I was squeezing past his laundry bag to get to my locker. We shook hands.

“It’s okay?” he asked. His somber brown eyes shifted to the hanging accoutrements. Our bunk looked like an overburdened pack animal.

“It’ll be fine,” I said.

“How you need . . . ?” Pedro pawed at the air; he was asking if I had enough room to climb.

“Oh, yes. There’s room.” I placed one foot on a brace at the end of the bunk and pushed myself up to put the other foot on top of my locker. “See? It’ll be fine.” My legs have grown strong from four years of sleeping in top bunks. As I was demonstrating my technique I noticed my neighbor Willy making his bed with excessive force. I asked him if he was all right.

“This always happens to me,” he said. “It’s like they put these people near me on purpose.”

“What’s that?”

“My new bunkie.” Willy pointed to the freshly made bed above his own. “He likes boys.”

Throughout the dorms the atmosphere was rife with grousing. Nobody was happy about the new arrangements. I heard one sex offender say to another he felt unsafe bunking with an affiliated white. A Mexican told someone he was just relieved not to have been placed near the Puerto Ricans. Nobody wants to be near the Puerto Ricans. The affiliated whites don’t want to be near the sex offenders, the Mexicans don’t want to be near the blacks, and the blacks don’t want to be near each other.

“They hate being black,” Jack said.

That night after lights out I scaled our bunk in the same manner I had demonstrated to Pedro. I leapt into a crouch atop my locker and crawled into bed on my hands and knees keeping low so as not to bump my head on the ceiling. The bunk swayed. Pedro’s Tupperware mobile spun churning up the smell of onion flakes and Sazon.

Somewhere between wakefulness and sleep I felt a tap near my elbow. I opened my eyes. It was Jack.

“Put your shirt on,” he said.


“The blacks and Mexicans are butting heads in the next room. Put your shirt back on. Be ready, in case things kick off.”

Indeed the energy in the room had changed. Even in the dark I could sense it, like the mosquito-whine of a muted TV. Or like the West Texas summer heat: a still buzzing between the temples. I saw the cartoon with the tomato-red face, kettle steam shooting from his ears. I pulled on my T-shirt. Should I lace up my sneakers? Pull on my boots? Across the room I saw Jack’s muddy silhouette posted beside his bunk. The others in the room, the blacks and Mexicans in particular, had taken similar stances. They stood with their heads turned in the direction of the next room, listening for the call to arms.

Curious thoughts go through one’s mind when he’s in danger. There are thoughts of bravery: I’ll loop my combination lock through my belt and start swinging should anyone get close. Thoughts of heroism: I’ll protect Jack; I’ll jump on his assailant’s back, sink my teeth in his neck. Morbid thoughts, strangely pleasurable: they’ll knock me to the ground; they’ll kick my teeth into my brain pan.

Minutes passed. I wondered what kind of fighter I’d make, if I’d fight at all. Fight or flight, as they say. Then Jack, returning to bed, having just came from the next room, passed my bunk and gave me a single nod:

Not tonight.

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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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