Tripping

A young man is in the bathroom tripping on K2, this man, this kid really, who was high not two days ago and observed wiping his ass with his dirty sock. He lies now on the bathroom floor, his body clenching and unclenching like a giant fist. I watch him from the doorway, and what I’m thinking isn’t that I should help him up or make sure his thrashing head doesn’t hit the concrete lip of the shower’s threshold. I’m thinking instead about the kid’s shorts, which, in the tussle, have hiked themselves down to partially expose his ass. I’m thinking it’s strange, sinister possibly, that I should find the sight of this arrested and vulnerable boy vaguely arousing.

 

Until prison I had never witnessed drug use. I had friends in high school who smoked weed, but I never participated. In grade school a visiting D.A.R.E. officer asked our class to name off some drugs we might have heard of. One student answered “marijuana,” after which I raised my hand and countered with “pot.” The officer blinked at me, said they were the same thing. I mention this not to exult any virtue but to point out how naive I was before my incarceration.

 

When I came to prison I was surprised that one could procure from behind these fences any vice he wishes—drugs, sex, pornography, tobacco, alcohol. I recall the first time I was offered a sip of hooch. It tasted of warm saltwater and grapefruit peel.

 

I recall too a former cellmate lying on his belly and exhaling pot smoke into our cell’s air vent. With later cellmates I recall syringes, tourniquets, lines of white powder, simmering spoons. Rod once showed me how he was able to tuck his antidepressant so discreetly and so thoroughly in his cheek that the pill line nurse couldn’t spot it, even with his mouth wide open. He ground so many pills on the table in our cell that the finish had gone hazy in one corner.

 

Back in the bathroom two white guys, two peckerwoods, come to fetch the kid from the floor. One man takes the seizing boy’s shoulders, the other his feet. Together they haul him away like a rolled up heavy carpet, kinked in the middle.

 

I wonder what my addiction to pornography might have looked like to an outsider.

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Eclipse

The one o’clock controlled movement is called at quarter till. Across the compound officers everywhere rising at once from their chairs, keys jangling, locks turning. We step out of the chow hall, the cook, the baker, and I, into a sepia haze, though we smell no brush fire. Our shadows on the walk appear strangely stunted.

“Look at these fools,” says the cook of the crowds pouring from the buildings, “all staring at the sun. Hopefully they go blind; they need to be thinned out.”

Grinning, I lower my hand from my eyes. Who can resist! Though all morning the news anchors warned of the dangers of staring baldly into a solar eclipse. Two brothers, once young, now old, testified to the cottony veil afflicting their visions since witnessing the eclipse of 1979. This followed by an apocalyptic slideshow of smoldering rods and cones, starburst retina scars like crater impacts. “A quick glance couldn’t hurt,” I say to the cook. For who has never admired the sun, if only briefly, to feel his own smallness?

The cook brushes past me. “Suit yourself,” he says before disappearing into the dorm. Behind him Jack is returning from Laundry with a bag of clothes slung over his shoulder, his free hand scissoring, going nowhere in a hurry. All that meth.

“Jack, you’ll watch the eclipse with me, won’t you?”

“And burn my eyes out? Fuck no.”

Elsewhere on the compound men converge outdoors in front of the library, the gym, the commissary, and in front of the chapel where the waning sun projects scythes of light through the silver birch’s papery leaves. Nearby a man stands with his back to the sun squinting into an empty oatmeal box. Another inmate has made solar lenses by layering scraps of tinted film atop his sunglasses. A line forms behinds him, and one by one the men take turns peering skyward through the shades.

Someone has brought moon pies.

Meanwhile I linger on the front stoop of the dorm daring glances at the sky. Beside me a Mexican cups several nested pairs of sunglasses to his face.

“I see it!” he cries. He turns and regards me a moment before offering me his glasses. “You see?”

Overhead, past the dorm’s eve, a black worm nibbling away at the sun.

Even through four darkened lenses the sun’s glare still kicks between the eyes, and I have to look away before long, vision swimming, imagining a world turned permanently gauzy like the old brothers’.

“You see?” the man says again.

“Yes,” I say to the man. “I do see.” And the man grins at me, his face a luminescent purple blotch.

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Love Bubba

Nu,

I got approval on my end to write you directly. So hopefully this letter finds you easily. There’s no doubt I will better relate to you once we’re both out of prison. I just ripped up a two-page rant on how miserable I am. I realized you’re already living my hell, so there’s no point in going over the small differences. No doubt you’re upset at me—but get over it. There’s no one more upset at me than myself.

I asked for a job change. I’ll be changing from line server on second shift to a cook on first shift. I’ve had enough of certain people on my current job shift. Staying any longer I might act out, which wouldn’t be of any good. I’m not sure how I’ll like going to work at 1 A.M., but my hope is I’ll have a quieter, less drama-filled work environment.

Forgive my grammatical and punctuation errors. I’m not as refined of a writer as you are. Speaking of which, I just took the education assessment test the state requires new inmates to take. First you had to test to see which test level you would test from. Ha—dumb. I landed with the “advanced” level test. Then it was four hours of math and reading tests. I think I did pretty well in all the categories. I later found out that the parole board looks at you more favorable if you test low. Not sure how true that is. Seems that would be ass backwards, so I’m sure it’s true. Nothing in the “correctional” system makes any sense. But I won’t go there.

Dad came to see me last weekend. As he walked over to the vending machines I really noticed how aged our father has become. It reminded me of my own age and how I’m really not as young as I feel. I know there’s plenty of years to be had with him still, but these will be gone just as quickly as these last twenty plus years. And before you know it my own years will have slipped past me. We really are only here for a blink of an eye. Soaking up the moments with the ones you love truly is what it is all about. I wish sometimes I could get our family to see that. I’ve asked Dad for at least a decade to make more time—correction—spend more time together. I don’t know. I just know how different I want to be as a dad. Maybe different isn’t the right word. And by all means I’m not doing any better by putting myself where I’m at today. Anyway, enough putting my foot in my mouth. All I’m saying is having a close family is important because in the end it’s all we have. I’m sorry for any shortcomings of being a good big brother. Landing myself in here doesn’t help you in any way. But maybe in the end it’s for the better. Maybe I can be a better brother, father, and son through this experience. I’m determined to learn something from this.

I’ve signed up for welding, horticulture, and several self-help type classes. I’ve always wanted to learn to weld and to be a better green thumb. I’m not sure what exactly the other classes are I’ve signed up for, but they look good for parole, a parole I’m sure I’ll be denied my first go around. The “victim” will surely object to my parole at two and a half years, which will set it back another year. So I should be headed home in another three years and two months. So that gives me a bit of time to learn something. Ha.

It’s funny how my victim couldn’t consent to the use of her own body and decisions. Yet they like to try offenders at that age as adults all day long. I’ve met plenty that were underage and yet were sentenced as adults for their crimes. Anyway, I’ll refrain from going down that road tonight.

I’ve been reading the Game of Thrones series. I’ve seen several seasons on HBO, but I’ve missed the last two. I have all of the series to keep me busy for awhile. I’ve also took on reading the entire Bible in a year. B gave me her one-year Bible when I left. It’s broken into daily readings of part Old Testament, part New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs. I know you’re currently an atheist so I won’t bore you with my learnings for now. I’ll just say that you shouldn’t judge a faith by its cover (the hypocritical “Christians”) and that there’s gotta be something good about a man who preached grace. I also have asked for a couple of subscriptions to some magazines to keep me sane. I have to give you props/commendations for being such a minimalist in prison. Never once did you ask me to get you a subscription or money or a book. Fuck that—send them all to me. There ain’t shit here in state prison. You want something, you gotta buy it.

Anyway, that’s all I got. I’m tired. Visitation really kinda wears you out. Waiting, anticipation, the visit, and then the letdown when it’s over. Mine are only two hours long. Fucking dumb.

Love Bubba

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Fog

After weeks of unseasonably warm weather—evenings in which one could walk the track in only his shorts and tank top—a cold front blows in overnight bringing with it a fog so tenacious not even the West Texas wind can drive it away. The world outside has vanished. Gone is the commissary. Gone is the lieutenant’s office and the administration building with its crown of razor wire. Farther out, beyond the smokescreen fence, the red eye atop the water tower has been extinguished, and the derelict wind turbine lies scattered somewhere over the Permian Basin as a million points of light.

Meanwhile inside the dorms we sip instant coffee and read Lee Child. We solve crosswords and Sudoku, wash our sweatpants in the sinks and smash ramen against the floor. From his locker someone pulls out a Scrabble board and sock full of tiles, another a deck of cards. The blacks shuffle dominoes, the Mexicans slam spades. Two Hispanic men have turned the bathroom into a gym, banging out pull-ups off the stall frame and dips off the sinks. The smell of their sweat mingles with the damp of the showers and with the K2 smoke unfurling above the far stall.

The inmates complain that the officers are being overly precautious in keeping us confined to the dorm, and for counting and recounting us every few hours. But the cook, who sits one bunk away sorting through a stack of old magazines, says he once knew a man with nine escape charges, who’d wait for mornings like this one and slip away unnoticed into the fog. His second escape, says the cook thumbing through a Vanity Fair, ended in a shootout with police. “He was a little crazy, that one. He told me he joined the Communist Party so he could pick up chicks.”

For my own part I decide to greet the lockdown as an opportunity to catch up on projects I’d been putting off, such as organizing my locker, sewing the hole in my gym bag, and repairing my photo album. In prison, photo albums aren’t so much a place for storing photos as a place for forgetting them. Recently mine has begun to unravel, shedding people and places across the bottom of my locker, thus negating its purpose.

The album’s spine is fastened together by two screws which, according to the instructions that came with the refills, can be loosened, simply, with the turn of a coin. I try a button instead, but it’s too wide. My thumbnail is too shallow, a pen cap too awkward. I rummage for more possible tools, making my locker into an even greater mess, before settling on tweezers which gouge and scratch but which eventually force the screws to turn, albeit slowly and in the wrong direction. A tussle ensues. The album flops and fidgets in my lap like a tired child. Pages tear and a litter of photographs falls to the floor. The delicacy with which I collect them mocks my rage.

“Are those orchids?” The cook nods to the photos at my feet.

“Clematis,” I say. “My parents send me pictures of their garden.”

“We had a garden back home, too,” says the cook, who still has the habit of referring to his ex-wife and himself as one. “Orchids are my favorite. Your family sends you a lot of pictures.” His eyes linger on the morning glories, zinnias, and hyacinths. Inexplicably, I feel a need to apologize.

“They don’t send nearly as many pictures anymore,” which is somewhat a lie as my father sent a new batch just last week. I gather the remaining photos and set them in my locker along with the ravished album.

“Aren’t you going to finish organizing them?”

I shrug. “Maybe we could play cards instead.” I turn to the barred window over our bunks. “It seems the fog will be staying with us awhile. I still can’t see the water tower.”

The water tower is a new landmark on our horizon. It surfaced above the chain link one morning like a periscope, a single pillar joined just after lunch by four stanchions. That evening Jack and I watched from outside the gym as a crane lowered the reservoir’s lid into place. He told me some 3,000 water towers across the nation became riddled with gunfire on the eve of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Indeed, unpainted and rusted at the seams our water tower looked like a monstrous alien brain scudding over the treetops.

On a clear day I can see the monster’s red eye burning from my new bunk. Dorm renovations that began a year and a half ago recently closed part of the third floor’s living quarters displacing many inmates. Some men were moved to the first floor, which houses the fat and crippled and smells of urine and mildew from constant sewage leaks. Others like myself were assigned to live among the more able-bodied on the second floor, which smells better, though the beds here are smaller. Those in top bunks sleep sandwiched between the mattress and ceiling in precisely three and a half feet of vertical space, while those in bottom bunks enjoy an extra half foot of clearance. My neighbor, the cook, says it’s like sleeping in a sarcophagus. At six foot seven his knees, while reading in bed, legs folded, brush the underside of the bunk above him. I’ve smacked my head now several times since moving in, most often while rising in the middle of the night to piss.

Last night I rose from a strange dream. I dreamed I was looking out over the railing of a massive vessel when suddenly the ocean began to pull away from the ship. I turned and ran along the deck, and as I ran I passed the cook who looked on placidly at the rising seawall. I woke just before the wave consumed us. Later in the bathroom, groggy and blinded by florescent light, I didn’t see the puddle until I was in it. Cold water seeped through my shower shoes and stung my feet. Again I saw the ocean sucking, the ship’s exposed hull and the gray seabed. The urinals had overflowed again (the first floor would be flooded come morning).

The cook laughs when I relate my dream to him over a game of rummy.

“I waved to you, but you did nothing. You didn’t seem the least bit scared. Honestly, it was rather annoying.”

The cook laughs again and lays down three fives, breaking the run I’d been building in my hand. He tells me his wife—ex-wife, he bothers to correct himself—would often wake up angry at him for insensitive things he’d said or did to her in her dreams.

“Do you still talk to her?” I draw the six of hearts—useless—and discard the ace of spades.

“No.” He swipes the ace and lays down three of a kind. “I used to call, but I stopped. Everything I know of her life now I hear through my son. It’s just easier that way.” He discards the two of clubs. “Floating,” he says.

“Easier for you?”

“No, easier for her.”

Come lunchtime the fog is still with us, and we are made to file one floor at a time through the sea smoke to the chow hall, where after ten minutes the lieutenant flicks the lights and hollers for us to finish our sloppy joes so that the other floors can eat, and so that we can be counted yet again. Back at the dorm I try reading, but my stomach is leaden with starch and grease. I give in instead to exhaustion and fall asleep with a book spread open-wing across my chest.

Along with chrysanthemums and foxgloves, my father sends me pictures of my mother’s household crafts and projects: a winter vignette above the mantle with individually framed block letters that spell N-O-E-L; an autumn wreath on the front door made of wire and burlap; a new wall color in the dining room, a shade of beige so minutely warmer than the last that I can’t tell the difference. Most recently my father sent a photo of an old tool chest Mom found in my grandfather’s garage after his death (and where was I at his funeral?), repainted fire-engine red and repurposed as a seed drawer. This last photograph, along with others of reupholstered chairs and drapery, had been too large to fit the sleeves of my album. I try after napping to fold them. Every fresh white crease breaks my heart. In my peripheral I see the cook waving a sheet of paper.

“Have I ever showed you a picture of my son?” He passes me a printout so saturated with ink that it curls in my hands like a scroll.

“He looks like you,” I say. They share the same linebacker build, same wide jaw and soft gray eyes. His son stands in a boat holding up a fish the length of his torso. We are roughly the same age.

“I see you’re still at it,” says the cook.

I look to the open photo album and mass of loose photographs on my bunk. “I may never finish. It’s depressing, you know.”

“I know,” says the cook, and he puts the paper back in his locker.

Dinner runs in the same manner as lunch. We tramp by floor through the fog past a line of officers stationed between the dorm and the chow hall. They look translucent and hollow in the haze like cicada husks. Someone in front of me comments that in the nine years he’s been down in Big Spring he’s never witnessed a fog that’s lasted all day. More miraculous to me than the weather is that a person could spend nine years in one prison.

After dinner I shower and shave. Black whiskers fall like lead filings into the basin where they jitter and dance with bits of ramen and mackerel. It is Saturday evening and my parents will be expecting my call. For the past six years, since I’ve been incarcerated, I’ve called home twice a week. This amounts to some 600 phone calls. More staggering, confounding even, is that my parents have missed not one call. They answer every time, as they answer now, on the second ring, my father’s voice blaring on the kitchen phone like a commercial interruption, my mother’s on the bedroom line sounding restrained, as if weighed heavy by the fog.

I can always gauge within the first minute of the phone call the general health of the household. I know by my father’s weary voice when he’s put in another seventy hours at work. I know when my mother has struck success with dinner before even asking what they’ve eaten. I know too when there is discord; my mother withdraws while my father, eager to soothe and to compensate for her reticence, becomes loud and whimsical.

“Hello, Son!” he bellows now. “How’s my boy doing? Say, did you guys get any rain down there?”

The receiver is still warm in my hand from the last inmate and smells of coconut oil.

“No rain that I’m aware of,” I say. “We’ve been locked down all day because of fog.”

“Fog! Well, isn’t that something.”

“Why do they lock you down for fog?” My mother’s voice, when she speaks, is as soft as wet crepe paper. The ignorance of her question, like my father printing photos too large for my album, enrages me.

Dad intercedes: “Of course they lock him down, Louise. The boy’s a flight risk! He might jump the fence under the cover of fog!”

Mom stiffens at the mention of fences; her line goes quiet again.

Weather, the garden, the cats’ latest hijinks are among the topics that fill our weekly fifteen-minute phone calls. Though tonight the grappling for small talk is especially urgent with my older brother in jail. Earlier this week he pleaded guilty to sex with a minor.

Mom didn’t go to the courthouse. She said she couldn’t do it, not again. So Dad went alone. He sat in a courtroom that might have looked familiar to him. Perhaps he wore the same suit as at his younger son’s sentencing. And he saw again the judge, and he heard again the decree—though five years this time instead of twelve. And he heard too the mother of the sixteen year old recount to the court how his oldest boy had manipulated, defamed, and raped her little girl.

But we don’t talk about that. We talk instead about the new refrigerator my parents have bought, a French-door model sans ice dispenser. Dad conspires to pull Mom from her melancholy with a tragicomic retelling of the epic purchase, the countless hours spent sifting through online reviews, pouring over ads, sniffing out the best warranty, the best discount. He paints himself the hapless husband forced into spending his weekends wandering home-improvement warehouses with a Sunday circular and tape measure in hand. “You’re mother just about drove me crazy!” he says cheerfully.

Around the corner unseen the stairwell door opens to a barrage of Spanish bitingly loud and as crude as a dirty joke. Beside me a man weeps into the receiver: “Princess!” he says. “Are you listening? Sometimes your daddy gets frustrated and says things he don’t mean.”

I punch the volume button and press one finger to my ear. My mother is describing a new dish she has made for dinner—a ground lamb and potato hash with poached eggs—while my father makes sounds of approval. Food is yet another safe topic.

“Princess! Your Grandpa Herbert lived in his bathrobe and never left the house from the time he was sixty to the day he died, because your Grandma Rebecca broke his heart. That’s why I need you to tell your mommy that your daddy loves her and that you don’t want her to leave me.”

More Spanish burbles up the stairwell. Malicious laughter. Shouting. Doors slamming. Beat-boxing on the walls. I press the receiver so hard to my ear that it burns. My eyes burn, too.

“Mom,” I snap. “Mom, I can’t hear anything you’re saying over these fucking Mexicans.”

An inhale of breath like fog moving through chain link. “The swiss chard,” she says again. “It cooked down to nothing. I didn’t have enough swiss chard.”

Once while rolling meatballs in the Officers’ Mess, the cook, in the midst of regaling stories about his son and daughter, admitted to me that it’s hard to be a father when you’re in prison. At first I’d said I can’t imagine, as I have no children. But a moment later I reconsidered. Rolling a ball between my greased hands I said I might imagine after all, because it’s hard too to be a son when you’re in prison.

Now, mercifully, the phone beeps for the second and final time. My father remarks as he does every week how fast these fifteen minutes fly. I set the receiver gently in its cradle while my parents are still saying their goodbyes.

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Officers’ Mess

The floors in the dorms have been waxed, the walls patched and painted. Freshly laid treading in the stairwells still reek of rubber and adhesive. Outside, hedges stand trimmed, windows gleam spotless, and on the rec yard the once threadbare weight benches sit reupholstered in black faux leather. A newly posted sign nearby reminds inmates to wear their hard-toed boots while lifting weights. Indeed the compound is rife with new signage: signs designating restricted areas, signs indicating the nearest fire extinguishers. In response to recently passed legislation aimed at eliminating rape in prisons, each bathroom now has posted its maximum occupancy.

Such vigilance and attention to detail must mean that the suits have arrived for their annual inspection. They sit now at a conference table in the Captain’s office, priming themselves on Diet Coke and banana muffins. Soon they will depart on a tour of the compound, through the manicured rec yard, the orderly vocational training classrooms, and through a few select dormitories that have recently undergone renovations. Understandably, the staff are in a tizzy; every department head wishes the institution, or at least his own department, high marks. Under considerable pressure is Foodservice Administrator Salinas, who, in the hours before the inspectors are set to end their tour at the chow hall, blows through the kitchen double-checking temperature logs and running his hands along the tops of the ice machines and the undersides of the grills’ hoods. He holds up a soiled finger to the nearest inmate worker.

“You call this clean?” he cries.

In no place is Mr. Salinas’s scrutiny more pointed than in the Officers’ Mess Hall, where finally the inspectors will settle to a lunch of roast beef and mashed potatoes. Tucked away at the back of Foodservice, just off the inmate dining room, the Officers’ Mess Hall isn’t so much a hall as it is a single room just large enough to accommodate a galley kitchen and seating for twenty hungry officers. I’ve been working here in the OM now for six months, cleaning and tending to the salad bar, and still Mr. Salinas cannot, or perhaps refuses to, remember my name. When berating me for some perceived inadequacy, he’ll turn to either of my coworkers, the cook or the baker, and ask again for the quiet one’s name. Even then he gets it wrong:

“Mulligan—the lettuce is wilted.”

“Melvin—the table legs need dusting.”

“Milton—when was the last time you cleaned the glass bricks?”

Separating the entryway from the dining area is a wall of glass bricks which Salinas believes, contrary to all my scrubbing and degreasing and bleaching, is dirty.

“Actually, sir,” I say to him now, “I cleaned the bricks just this morning.”

Salinas squints doubtfully at the glass but says nothing. He presses on instead into the kitchen; today he is more concerned with the meal we’ll be serving the inspectors come noon. He prowls past the steam table eyeing the pans of roast and garlic-studded potatoes and the sauteéd squash grown by inmates at the minimum-security prison across the street.

“What’s this?” Salinas says pointing to a tray beneath the heat lamp.

The baker steps forward, dusts his hands on his apron, smiles. “Cheddar-herb biscuits, sir.”

Salinas pops a biscuit in his mouth.

“Needs more herbs,” he says, still chewing.

Not long after Salinas disappears to harass the butchers do the day’s first patrons begin to trickle in. The commissary staff file through quickly, taking their salads to go, while the vocation instructors eat hardy and linger long, praising between mouthfuls of meat and gravy the results of last month’s presidential election. The Laundry Department arrives next. Officer Arms dismisses the roast beef and orders instead a grilled cheese sandwich, which sparks a rash of grilled cheese requests among his cohorts. While waiting for their sandwiches, the officers discuss this past summer’s Olympics, of which highlights play on the television above the cup rack. One CO, snacking on croutons at the salad bar, comments on how compact and lithe those women gymnasts are. I’ll bet you, he says to the others, I can pick any one of them up with three fingers, like a six-pack. Or, says the CO beside him, like a bowling ball. Still laughing, the officers depart with their to-go trays, ignoring the payment machine posted beside the door. Out of the some seventy officers we serve in a day, only about half pay the $2.25 fare for their meals.

The medical staff pay regularly, and they arrive now swiping their cards and depositing their cash at the door. Health Services Administrator Crnkovitch is looking smart today in navy slacks and a modest white blouse. Her back tattoo is well concealed, and she’s removed her nose stud. Understandably she is anxious to make a good impression with the inspectors considering her department’s ongoing run of flubs and embarrassments. Most recently there was the rash that raged undiagnosed for three months in the dormitory. Before that, nine inmates called to the clinic for routine tuberculosis testing were mistakenly injected with insulin. Of course nobody has forgotten the affair between the dental hygienist and inmate dental assistant.

“I’ll take the roast beef,” Crnkovitch says now, sniffing over the steam table. “And put the gravy on the side, in case I don’t like it.”

She takes her plate and settles in between two nurses, both of whom nibble away at their customary salads.

It’s a strange job feeding one’s captors. Stranger still is seeing one’s captors eat, watching them in this most intimate act of chewing and swallowing. The cook and I have a theory that people’s characters are revealed through their eating habits. Officer Arms’s affinity for grilled cheese, for example, reveals a man obsessed with recreating the comforts of his childhood. IT Administrator Harwood’s insistence on sitting at the head of the table indicates an authority complex with, perhaps, misogynistic leanings. Those officers who salt their food before tasting it are impulsive, while those who never season their food, or who complain to the cook that his gravy is too salty, are dull lovers.

By far the officer with the most bizarre eating habit is Crnkovitch.

“Here she goes again,” says the cook. Crnkovitch pushes away her plate and makes a calm yet resolute beeline to the bathroom. “Maybe she’s allergic to gluten.”

“Or maybe she’s bulimic,” says the baker.

“No,” says the cook. “She’s much too fat to be bulimic.”

Moments later Crnkovitch returns puffy-eyed to her seat and resumes eating. Her coworkers are careful to pretend as though she’s never left the table. What’s most disturbing isn’t that Crnkovitch purges once or sometimes even twice at every meal but that she chooses to do so in the bathroom’s waste basket.

“The toilet is dirty,” the cook once reasoned. “She’s afraid of getting splashed.”

“And yet she,” I countered pulling on rubber gloves, “a healthcare professional sees nothing dirty with someone cleaning her vomit out of a trash pale.”

By noon the dining room is filled with officers. Captain Rule saws through an open-face roast beef sandwich beside Education Administrator Brammer who stirs into his iced tea a sixth packet of sweetener. Seated across from them is Mr. Jones, the head of Recreation, and his wife, Mrs. Jones, the Case Manager. Strangely, the couple rarely sits together, and seated between them now like a child caught in the middle is Trust Fund Supervisor Ms. Enriquez, whose empty plate I whisk away silently, covertly. I sometimes imagine that the officers live in an ecosystem of their own, one with which I must interact but influence as little as possible. But Enriquez is sharper than most others of her species; she detects my small wake and thanks me.

Back in the kitchen I rinse stacks of plates and load them into the dish washer. Food scraps get tossed into a blue barrel beside the sink. Every day we throw away heaps of uneaten food: burritos, burgers, chicken fried steaks, French fries smothered in ketchup, cakes, cookies, muffin stumps, pizza crusts, fried chickens stripped of their skins, boiled eggs stripped of their whites, soups, stews, beans, greens, green beans, plates of salad, saucers of pickles, bowls of peppered but otherwise untouched cantaloupe. All waste gets tossed into the blue barrel, which is then emptied into the digester, a great burbling, belching machine that stands sentry at the back of the building beside the vegetable cooler. On some mornings its tank overflows spreading a sweet-stinking bile across the tile floors.

The cook says waste is rampant throughout the foodservice industry. But for correctional officers to throw away food seems especially tragic when so many inmates in prisons leave the chow hall hungry. Many would surely jump at the chance to devour the scraps that get so mindlessly thrown away by the officers.

“I don’t get it,” I say to the cook, holding out a plate on which rests a lone cherry tomato. Mr. Rice’s habit is to eat everything save for one morsel—a single crouton, a sole French fry, a solitary macaroni.

The cook gets to theorizing: “Maybe he has an aversion to gluttony. Maybe he’s a recovering anorexic. Maybe he has Asian ancestry who believe it an insult to the host to clean one’s plate.”

“Or maybe he’s a dick,” I say flicking the tomato into the barrel.

It is quarter past noon when the inspectors arrive. Four men, faces stony like moai statues, sling their jackets over the chair backs at the only open table before ordering plates of meat and potatoes and gravy. The eldest helps himself to a side of cantaloupe from the salad bar.

The room, once the men have seated themselves and begun eating, resumes its former buzz, and I, invisible, weave in and out of the various conversations, whisking away dirty plates and crumpled napkins. Officer Brammer is telling Officer Enriquez about the maintenance costs of his truck while the Captain talks sports with Mr. Jones. Chief Psychologist Tubb regales Mrs. Jones with stories of her dog, and Crnkovitch is complaining to the nurses about the new dentist when she succumbs suddenly to the hiccups and has to excuse herself a second time to go vomit. Officer Teters is telling Rice he is wary of working any more overtime for fear his ex-wife will take him to court to demand more money. I swoop in and take his plate.

“Did I say I was done with that?”

“I’m sorry, sir. Excuse me.” I set the empty plate back down. I imagine, while collecting abandoned cups and utensils, my captors clocking out at the ends of their shifts and taking their trucks for oil changes before heading home to their collie-mixes and Tivoed sports. I expected my captors’ lives to be somehow bigger than my own, but in truth we all live so small.

At the inspectors’ table a spoon has fallen to rest beside one of the men’s feet, and I stoop to pick it up.

“The sex offenders present us with a particular problem,” the eldest inspector is saying to his colleagues. “They create mountains of paperwork for us, what with all the complaints they like to file. Sex offenders are, as you know . . . “

I stand, delinquent spoon in hand, in time to see the inspector tap his graying temple with one finger.

Back in the kitchen I throw the spoon into the sink. Into the blue barrel I dump an entire mound of uneaten mashed potatoes, followed by a congealing clump of sauteéd squash, wilting romaine, and sopping croutons. Three boiled egg yolks bounce off the sides of the barrel like yellow Ping-Pong balls.

When I get to the inspectors’ dishes I see that the eldest has eaten all but one piece of his cantaloupe.

“Oh, he’s one of those,” I say to the cook.

But the cook doesn’t hear me. He is rummaging the shelves for coffee filters, and the baker is pulling tomorrow’s bread dough from the cooler. Nobody sees me when I grab the cantaloupe off the inspector’s plate and put it in my mouth.

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The Hygienist

The last time I saw Jay was at the commissary Monday morning. His number had been called moments earlier, and he’d returned from the window carrying a laundry bag of toiletries and instant coffee. Save for some sugar-free peppermints, he’d bought none of his usual indulgences—no sodas, no Zebra Cakes. He said he was trying to slim down. As he turned to leave I watched him pop a mint in his mouth, slip another in his shirt pocket for later.

Later Jay vanished.

Of course nobody vanishes in prison, not in a place where confinement and accountability are key, are indeed the entire point. Barring death or a pardon, there is no place for an inmate to vanish to. There is only here, behind these fences and locked doors. In the greater world it’s unavoidable that a few citizens should slip between the cracks now and then. But in prison, when a man fails to report to his bunk for the census count, a ritual that validates our very existence some six times a day, it can mean only one thing.

“They locked up Jay.”

Jack pulled out his ear buds and wiped the bangs from his forehead. He’d been jogging the track when I flagged him down. The hairs on his chest glistened silver against a fresh sunburn.

“Jay’s in the hole,” I said again. “He never showed at lunch, and when I went to the dorm I found the CO clearing out his locker.”

It had taken the officer a half hour to pack up Jay’s belongings. His book collection alone filled an entire duffle bag and caused the assisting orderly to sway on his heels.

“Why the hell did they lock him up?” Jack asked.

I motioned toward the dental clinic just beside the track. For two years Jay had been enrolled in the dental assistant program, working and training alongside the prison’s dentist, and also the clinic’s pretty blonde hygienist.

“You think it had to do with her?” Jack asked.

“What else?”

Within minutes, indeed before his mattress had been stripped and his pillow nabbed by fellow inmates, the compound was rife with speculation as to the nature of Jay’s infraction. The prison rumor mill Inmate-dot-com, so called for its ubiquity and utter lack of authority, choked on the influx of gossip as if hit by a DDoS attack. Some supposed Jay had been caught with pornography. Others said he’d had a beef with the West Texans. Yet a few inmates recalled noticing, while having teeth pulled, a particular warmth between Jay and the friendly hygienist. Naturally the netizens latched onto the latter speculation, and from there rumor descended down the darkest, most scandalous path: they were caught in a chair-side embrace, they were seen smooching behind the x-ray machine, they were found fucking in the dentures lab.

An officer once said he didn’t understand why inmates bothered pressing him for the skinny. “You guys know more of what goes on around here than we do.” Which for all its unreliability says something about Inmate-dot-com’s uncanny ability to more than occasionally hit upon the truth. When a day later the hygienist was seen being escorted off the yard, head down, dark shades shielding her face, an affair was all but confirmed.

Certainly Jack and I knew of the relationship. As Jay’s closest allies, we were made privy to certain flirtations and innuendos. But even Jack wasn’t aware, rumors aside, of how far the affair had progressed in recent months. In retrospect, what’s remarkable wasn’t Jay’s brazen relationship with an officer but that he should have shared with me the details of the tryst, that we should have shared any of all the things we shared with each other, that we should have been so close in a place where trust and intimacy are so rare.

Jay and I were more than allies. We were workout partners and bunkmates. We were fellow expatriates in a foreign land, and we bonded initially over our shared wonderment. We mocked prison, the officers, the other inmates. We poked fun at prison politics and joked that we ought to found our own affiliation based not on race or hometown but on the candidate’s holding a college diploma.

Jay himself had been taking correspondence courses for a doctorate in counseling. His dissertation, ironically, was on sex addiction. His locker was filled with dog-eared tomes on psychology, theology, philosophy, and on human sexuality. Jay claimed he was bisexual; an experience with a childhood friend when he was eleven left an impression that lasted into adulthood. I scoffed: “Letting your wife fuck you with her dildo doesn’t make you bisexual.” I told him that as a gay man I resented popular culture for deciding that sexual deviation was suddenly cool. Proclivities aside, I maintained that sexuality is more practically defined by who you eventually wind up with, who you love.”

“Love has nothing to do with it,” Jay said. “We’re capable of falling in love with whomever. If you and I were on a deserted island, I’d just as easily fall in love with you.”

We discussed everything; nothing was off limits. Not even the reason for our incarceration. Our collecting habits, we learned, weren’t all that different. Jay had kept his hoard of some 10,000 images and videos organized by age, whereas I’d kept mine, half that size, arranged by names. When haunting file-sharing networks, Jay’s ritual was to search in ascending order from “2yo” to “14yo,” while I searched in descending order from “14yo” to “9yo.” Jay’s favorite series was “Vicki”; mine was “Florian.”

We discussed child pornography with the same enthusiasm and nostalgia with which the convicted drug dealers discuss the hustle. We worked ourselves to arousal, unloading our most prurient interests, recollecting our most prized and perverse acquisitions, and waxing romantically on the beauty in juxtaposition: dominance and subservience, experience and innocence, caretaker and child.

“I love incest,” Jay said.

“Incest is great,” I agreed. “You should put that in your dissertation.”

In our more sober moods we dared to probe the nature of our addiction. We wondered if pornography itself weren’t a kind of drug, if watching is the same as participating, if there exists such a thing as a victimless crime. One evening Jay pulled from the many books in his locker Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and opened to a passage he’d marked earlier.

“‘The question is,'” he read, “‘am I a monster, or am I myself a victim?'”

After a stretch of silence I asked Jay if we were pedophiles.

“Yes,” he replied. And I recall feeling no shame. On the contrary, I felt relieved.

With all that we entrusted each other with, it wasn’t surprising that Jay should have divulged to me the details of his affair with Miss Hill. From a cleaning I’d had months earlier I remember her as a masked hovering figure, blue-eyed and freckled, gentle with the floss. Jay further elaborated: she had a pierced naval and a sweep of stars trailing across her hip and down below her panties, of whose cut and color he’d comment on daily.

“G-string today,” he’d say. “Red.”

It became our custom at the end of every evening to hold a rap session in which Jay would spill all that had transpired in the clinic that day. Lying together on his bunk eating pork rinds, he’d tally the kisses and close calls and estimate the number of times Miss Hill had come. His efforts at pleasuring her were often hampered by her keys. The belt was always in the way, getting caught in the elastic waistband of her scrubs, all the while jangling and ringing something awful. Jay called it her chastity belt. Strangely, she refused to ever take it off. It was the one rule that as an officer she would not break, as if unclipping it might have made her transgressions all the more real and intractable.

I suspect it was the belt that finally exposed the couple. Two days prior to his detainment, Jay and Miss Hill had been in the stockroom fooling around when Nurse Wilburn breezed in on some errand.

“Yoo-hoo!” she cried. “Where’s everybody at?”

Had her tone registered suspicion or cheerful ignorance? Jay could not recall.

“Oh, we’re here in the back”—Jay smoothed his smock and wiped the wetness from his beard—”just doing a bit of inventory.”

And what had been Wilburn’s reply? Had she said anything at all? Again, Jay could not remember. He’d been lost in Miss Hill and in the subsequent scramble to dress. Miss Hill’s belt had cried out like a chicken being strangled by a mongoose. In that evening’s rap session, Jay expressed concern over the noise. It’s likely the ringing keys gave the lovers away.

Were they indeed lovers?

In a note she slipped him, Miss Hill questioned the meaning of their affair, where they were headed, why she should find herself so ridiculously and infuriatingly drawn to a man she could not have, not fully anyway. She signed the letter, anonymously, with a grade-school yet touching heart. More than once I asked Jay if he loved her. His answers were always flippant: “I’m just having a good time,” he’d say. “I’m just in it for the fun.”

Certainly Jay was boisterous about his relationship with Miss Hill. But I didn’t know him to be callous. I suspect his feelings for the hygienist, having steeped and mulled in the two years they’d worked together, were much warmer than he was willing to admit. He’d slip candies in her desk, leave idle notes in her purse wishing her a good night and safe drive home. Once he plucked for her a blossom from the rose bush outside the chow hall. And yet I’m not convinced Jay was in love. Rather I believe that what drew Jay to Miss Hill was that she, that anyone, should be drawn to him, a convict, a sex offender, a self-professed pedophile. He was astonished when one afternoon she pulled out her wallet and showed him pictures of her two young daughters. Before leaving the clinic that day, Jay stood in her office doorway and thanked her.

“For what?” she asked.

“For not seeing me as an inmate. For not being afraid to show me those pictures.”

She looked up from her desk, suddenly stern. “I’m not afraid of you,” she said. “You messed up, is all. Everybody messes up.”

That afternoon of Jay’s disappearance I returned to the bunk we once shared and sat on his bare mattress. His locker was empty. All the books he’d collected and annotated were gone, with the exception of one. He’d given it to me days earlier, insisting I read it. I pulled it out then and turned to the passage he’d highlighted.

‘And what if I am a victim? In proposing to the object of my passion to elope with me to America or Switzerland, I may have cherished the deepest respect for her and may have thought that I was promoting our mutual happiness! Reason is the slave of passion, you know; why, probably, I was doing more harm to myself than anyone!’

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Mascots

Before the roadrunner came into our lives there was the skunk, whose feather duster tail could often be seen surfacing from the tall grass behind the library like a periscope. We presumed him male and assigned him familiar vices. Our skunk was a carouser, a gambler, a lover of women. He drank Jim Bean. Sadly, the staff did not share our affection. A trap was set, and in the morning we woke to find our skunk penned inside a cage on the library lawn, his tail extruding through the wire mesh like cheese through a grater. I thought of Russian nesting dolls: a cage within a cage within a cage.

Our newest mascot caused a stir when it arrived shortly after the New Year. Officer Parsons, peering out from the recreation shack, saw a mob of inmates gathered in front of the chapel and mistook the commotion for a fight. With one hand poised atop his radio he jogged toward the scuffle but found at its center not two dueling prisoners but a single bird crouched in the grass, its head tilted toward the sparrows tittering in the chapel’s silvery birch. Officer Parsons’ hand relaxed.

“A roadrunner,” someone said.

“But how did it get in?” said another inmate.

“Why, he flew of course.”

“Roadrunners can fly?”

“Sure they can. Just not very high. Like chickens.”

The inmates turned their gazes toward the twelve-foot fence trimmed in razor wire and then, enviously, back to the bird.

Like with our beloved skunk, we presumed the roadrunner a he. Jack however argued the bird was clearly female, on account of its diminutive size and lack of a pluck. Jack after all has some experience in these matters. He used to deal exotic pets, when he wasn’t dealing dope, and he claims to have once witnessed a roadrunner eating a house cat.

“It was yay tall,” he said, “and in its beak I saw a strip of orange fur. I couldn’t for the life of me think of any Texas-native animal with an orange pelt. And then I realized, my god, it’s eating a tabby.”

Jay leaned into my ear. “He’s full of shit. He was high and watching Loony Tunes.”

It’s true Jack has a penchant for telling incredible tales, everything from viscous animal attacks to machinery mishaps, bar room brawls to parking lot shootouts. But as fantastical as his stories are, I tend to believe that a man who’s spent most of his adult life in the company of drug dealers, burnouts, motorcycle gangsters, and crack whores can’t help but accumulate a vast collection of colorful stories.

“I suppose it’s possible,” I said, offering him the benefit of a doubt. “The encyclopedia says roadrunners are ‘opportunistic omnivores.'”

Jack laughed. “So are inmates.”

The inmate population here at Big Spring FCI has seen a sharp drop in the past year, falling from over 1,700 inmates to just under 1,100. The dorms are littered with vacant bunks and stripped mattresses. Lockers sit empty, robbed by other inmates of their shelves and hooks. Many men were shipped elsewhere due to overcrowding. Some elected to participate in distant drug abuse programs that would allow them up to a year off their sentences. Others have gone home. Henderson is scheduled to release to a halfway house this week and talks incessantly about such things as bus fare, itineraries, identification papers, and job interviews. Here in prison Henderson has earned his living and reputation as milk man. Every morning he wakes at quarter till six to smuggle milk from the chow hall to the dorm, where he keeps the pint-sized pouches on ice beneath his bed and sells them for a stamp a piece. What will he do in the free world? We know of Henderson in only one context, that of inmate, and cannot fathom him a civilian, working nine to five, clocking in and out, spending his Sunday mornings not stuffing his trousers with milk but sitting at his kitchen table paying bills and balancing a checkbook.

Do people still use checkbooks?

Someone asked Henderson, somewhat cheekily, what sort of job a meth addict with no prior work experience expected to find. Henderson got defensive.

“I worked when I was out there!” he cried. “I worked, I did! I worked twenty-three, twenty-five hours a day!”

Those of us left behind console ourselves by waging bets on who will return. The odds are always in our favor.

Earlier in the week we said goodbye to another character, Joe Dirt, so named for his scruffy resemblance to the star redneck in the film by the same name. Two days before his release he astonished us by shaving his iconic beard. More astonishing was that he was handsome, his eyes blue and kind. Given teeth he’d be a real looker. I asked Jack why the prison never fitted him for dentures.

“They did. He sold them.”

“He sold his teeth? But why?”

“Because he’s Joe Dirt. A better question is who in hell buys another man’s teeth?”

Joe Dirt could sell just about anything, and did, but his primary hustle was pornography. If Henderson was the milk man, Joe Dirt was the porn man. He kept his wares in a beat up photo album and sold each picture for a stamp, two if it was explicit. A seasoned salesman, he conducted all transactions with the utmost discretion, never judging, never batting an eye, not even at the more unusual requests for transvestites and women with braces. But despite his hustling prowess, Joe Dirt never had dirt, was always bumming a soup or coffee off his neighbors. His locker, when we ransacked it, was an echo chamber. He had no money and, to our limited knowledge, no family. I wondered aloud what Joe Dirt would have worn on the journey back to Pennsylvania, seeing as he had no one to send him street clothes.

“Blue jean,” Jack said. “They’d have given him some cheap jeans and a T-shirt. They don’t let you leave here in your khakis.”

I imagined Joe Dirt in his American Glories, staring out the Greyhound window, his blue eyes reflecting back at him like pale moons in the noon sky, marveled, frightened.

“He’ll be back,” Jack said. “Guys like Joe who have nothing to go home to always come back.”

The inmate population has thinned and no affiliation has been more affected than the good old white boys. Their numbers and consequently their clout have dwindled, not so much because of transfers or releases but because of treachery. It seems every month a charlatan—an undercover snitch or child molester—is discovered among their ranks, much to the delight of the confirmed sex offenders who often joke that the good old white boys aren’t as good as they claim themselves to be. The white dominion took another blow, literally, when a disagreement over televisions spurred a fight between the whites and West Texas Hispanics. The Mexicans easily overpowered the whites, cornering them in the TV room, locks swinging. For those able to escape, a second wave of Mexicans awaited them in the hall. The white shot caller ran through the dorm calling to arms every and all good white boys. An SO was said to have shouted back over the ruckus, “Let me know when you find one!”

That night seven whites were taken to the hole, and three were sent to the hospital. One man is rumored to possibly lose an eye.

Jay said the TV room was a mess after the incident, with crimson spattered on the floor and on walls and in chairs. As a blood spill orderly, Jay is trained in the cleanup of bodily fluids. It was the second time in a month he’s had to glove up, the first being when a Hispanic man sliced open his own arm with a razor in the bathroom. Jay, who isn’t one for sentimentality, took to calling the blade-happy Hispanic man Zorro.

“How’s Zorro doing? Is he still on suicide watch?”

“My shift isn’t until tomorrow,” I said. I’d been looking forward to seeing the hot-blooded Latin in a smock. “And technically he’s Puerto Rican. Zorro was Spanish.”

“Whatever. He’s lame is what he is, cutting himself over a gambling debt. Didn’t even hit an artery. Couldn’t even kill himself right.”

I never did get the opportunity to see Zorro in the buff; he was released from watch just short of my shift. Later at the debriefing we reviewed his internment with the psychologist and that prior of an elderly Native American who suffered a long list of depressing aliments including a gimpy leg, poor eye sight, and total deafness in one ear. A threat to public safety, for sure. After having refused his breakfast that morning, I asked the man if he wouldn’t like to eat lunch.

“What!”

“Your lunch, sir. It’s arrived,” I said loudly. “Would you like a sandwich?”

“I’d rather have a rope!”

I opened the brown bag. Inside were two slices of bread, a slice of cheese, and two apple halves, all wrapped in paper towels, as plastic is a potential choking hazard.

“I’m sorry. No rope,” I said. “But look—a cookie.”

The old man relented and allowed the nurse to pass him his food through the cage door’s bean slot. Like the milk Henderson steals from the chow hall, the juice too comes in pouches. The nurse attempted to tear through the plastic, but it was thick and her nude-lacquered nails kept slipping from the condensation. She considered going in search of scissors.

“Your teeth,” I said. “You have to bite it.”

She placed one end of the pouch between her teeth and bit down gingerly as a mother bites a stray thread from a child’s coat.

“Is this how you guys do it?” she asked, not unkindly.

“Yes, I think you’ve got it.”

But the puncture was too small and the juice dribbled watery pink into the Styrofoam cup for what seemed a life sentence.

“It takes practice,” I said.

At the debriefing we reviewed the usual laundry list of concerns. The psychologist reminded us that the lights in the watch room must remain at full brightness, that our log entries should be concise and objective, that our charge’s face and hands should remain visible at all times. The doctor also raised an important change in procedure. Should the inmate try to harm himself, the provided phone will now automatically ring Control, no need to dial zero.

“By the way,” she said, her tone brightening. “Has anyone seen this roadrunner?”

We roused at the mention of our new mascot.

“Positively terrifying!” she cried. “It decapitated a ground squirrel outside my office.”

Indeed the roadrunner has amassed a reputation for ferocity. Its bloodlust draws scores of inmates and staff alike. It was the crowd that first caught my attention and not the bird itself, which was rather drab, hardly larger than a pigeon, and nothing at all as I’d imagined. But what our mascot lacks in ornamentation it makes up for in speed and cunning. On spindly legs it slinked toward a host of sparrows and hunkered down behind a lip of pavement. Its tail teetered in the wind, testing currents, calculating geometries. Like giddy school children we held our breath and pressed our noses to the bell jar.

When the attack came the roadrunner did not as one might expect reach for the closest morsel but instead hedged all bets and plunged headlong into the flock, beak snapping at every opportunity. It emerged from the feathery froth victorious with a flinching sparrow in its jaws. We cheered.

“That roadrunner one bad motherfucker!”

“A stone-cold killer, that roadrunner!”

The roadrunner retired to the shade of an aloe vera to pluck clean its meal. Gray down flitted past my legs, tickling my ankles, to collect along the fence line. Within minutes the dead sparrow was as naked as a newborn mouse. Unlike the savagery of the hunt, the consummation was a solemn, almost religious occasion. With delicacy and reverence the roadrunner took up the soft body in its beak, tilted its head, shivered, swallowed. Though unlikely, someone claimed to have seen the tiny bird still moving in its final moments.

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