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 creases 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.