Sad Trombone

It’s been another one of those days in which I feel as if everyone knows something I don’t, one in which I read too much into every shifty stare, short remark, and snub, and by evening I’m exhausted from paranoia.

Do you know what they do to people like me in prison, if word gets out? I’ve heard stories: They tear into you with their fists and boots and locks. And then the officers throw you in the hold for a few months until they ship you to some other yard where you pray the same thing doesn’t happen again. The punishments are worst in penitentiaries where the inmates are sure to maim and cripple you–if not kill you–before officers have a chance to respond. Steve told me about one sex offender in the pen who had his intestines ripped from his belly and strewn around his cell. I’m just waiting for the day when a posse of good ol’ white boys comes looking for me demanding to see my paper work.

The weather here is getting cooler, and the laundry room has begun passing out winter jackets–khaki, of course. According to the fifth digit of my inmate ID, I should receive mine on the thirty-first of this month, if I haven’t died from exposure by then, or a brain injury. I am however thankful I don’t live in one of the many older prisons that are notorious for having flaky central heating. At the USP in Coleman, the inmates sleep in their coats during the winter, and by morning the toilet bowls are filled with ice.

I read somewhere that fifty percent of any relationship is based on proximity; we pursue relationships not so much with people who are most like us as we do with people who are most near us. This explains why we make the bulk of our friendships during adolescence when we are more or less forced to coexist with the same people throughout years of day care, elementary school, junior high, and high school. This also explains why long-distance romances rarely work out.

It therefore doesn’t shock me that the letters have slowed. People don’t write letters anymore, anyway. They were replaced by emails which have since been replaced by text messages. In a world that is constantly competing for our attention, we’ve come to prefer the instantaneous to the delayed, the abbreviated to the unabridged. Only three friends write with any regularity. For awhile, I made an effort to call those who didn’t, but recently my phone calls have come to feel intrusive, as if my intention was to exact pity. I imagine it must be difficult for my friends to share their successes with me without feeling guilty, or to unload their burdens for fear that they might sound trivial to my own. And for me, it’s impossible to talk of anything that isn’t prison related, which must be exhausting to listen to. It’s no wonder few inmates write letters or use their entire month’s allotment of calling minutes. What is there to talk about? In prison, the issue of proximity is more than physical; the distance that separates the incarcerated from those in the outside world is also emotional and experiential.

The gulf makes communicating with my own family difficult. I tried explaining to my father the precarious situation of being a sex offender in prison, but he couldn’t understand why anyone would care about my charge or why anyone would want to hurt me. He couldn’t understand the caste system in which sniches and sex offenders bear the weight of the bottom rung.

Equally frustrating is the lack of anything positive to talk about. I call home every weekend, and the best news I have to offer is that the rice at dinner wasn’t as undercooked as it usually is. Yet I feel a nagging obligation to remain falsely upbeat for my parents’ sake. I’m reluctant to mention anything that might worry them, especially my mother. But it’s hard. Sometimes I feel like Debbie Downer from that Saturday Night Live skit: “Well, it’s official–the doctor says it’s definitely scabes….”

Wha wha wha.

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