Strike

Mr. Kitchen, not even twelve hours into the hunger strike, was the first to cave and accept the proffered brown bag. Almost immediately officers whisked him away, bologna sandwich in hand, to the SHU, where he’d be safe from retribution at the hands of his peers. Solidarity is critical in a strike. Each inmate regardless of his race or affiliation must fall in line, or else fall. In this respect we are captives as much to each other as we are to our captors.

The strike erupted after staff imposed a series of unpopular measures aimed at curbing the prison’s growing contraband problem. Drug and tobacco use have surged in recent years. The availability of cell phones has become especially widespread. In 2016 officers at Big Spring FCI confiscated a single phone; this year they’ve seized over 200. More often the contraband is entering the prison in packages tossed over the fence by outside conspirators. The problem had gone mostly unchecked until this past spring, when the arrival of a new warden prodded staff into taking action. They revoked television privileges, suspended hobby craft programs such as painting and leather working, and when these punishments failed to dissuade the perpetrators, when still the packages came hurtling over the fence as many as five per day, staff upped the ante and moved to cut recreation for much of the compound to a single hour in the evenings.

The newest sanction enraged the already chasten-weary inmates. Shot callers called on their constituents to abandon their work posts until full recreation privileges had been restored. Some inmates, emboldened by a cause, decided to forgo food as well as work, and their peers, fearful of appearing the less spirited, followed suit. Staff didn’t know what to make of the eerily empty chow hall. A lockdown was declared. Inmates were corralled back to their dorms at the barrel ends of pellet rifles. Doors were bolted and operations were grounded, until complicity and order could be restored.

It was all rather thrilling in the beginning. The dorm’s cinderblock walls reverberated with a nervous energy, as from an impending storm. Outside, black clouds of Kevlar and flashing gun metal coalesced, while inside, behind shuttered doors, we counted provisions, hid possessions, and breathlessly speculated as to the ultimate nature of the storm: its strength, duration, path, and possible casualties. We shared stories of past revolts, each more fantastic and conceited than the last. The immensity of our foe and the implication of danger enthralled us. Like children we craved destruction.

Throughout the strike we tracked the storm’s course from the dorm’s windows. The windows, which run the building’s eastern and western walls, are squat and high; to see the world one must live in a top bunk, or else stand in a chair or pull himself up by the window’s steel bars. In the evening, here on the second floor, the western windows afford us a view of the sun setting over the Permian Basin, its lip casting cornflower blue shadows over the basin’s reddening floor. Less majestic but more immediate is our view from the dorm’s eastern windows. Here sunrise is obstructed by our sibling dorm, a mirror image of our own, a three-story brick monolith the precise color khaki as the surrounding desert, as though the building were raised from the very sand on which it sits. Between the dorms runs a road that once accommodated military vehicles back when the prison was an army base. Today the road is trafficked by inmates and correctional officers, and serves as the prison’s main artery by which all its functions are connected. During lockdowns, severed as we are from televisions and telephones and from each other, our view of this road and its traffic serves as our only source of intelligence. Standing on chairs, noses pressed between bars, we spied from these small portals the enemy’s advances. We saw the campers, inmates from the neighboring minimum-security prison, being marched to the chow hall to prepare our bagged meals. We saw these meals carted to our sibling dorm three times a day, and three times a day saw them carted back to the chow hall, unconsumed. We witnessed from these windows the traitorous Kitchen being escorted to the hole, having traded his loyalty for a bologna sandwich.

I should clarify that the hunger strike did not forbade us from eating necessarily. Rather the strike demanded we reject the prison’s three daily meals for as long as it took to grab the attention of region bureaucrats who would, the shot callers reasoned, push for a resolution more favorable to the prisoners. To the extent that any inmate went hungry depended on how much commissary food he’d squirreled away in his locker. A quick inventory of my own provisions revealed one summer sausage, a package of shredded beef, a block of cheese, one pouch each of tuna and mackerel, two bags of chips, four tortillas, some mayo, three scoops of instant coffee, and, when stirred together into a paste, four tablespoons of peanut butter and instant oats. The latter served as my breakfast, one tablespoon per morning.

Others were more or less fortunate. Some men had laundry bags filled with Top Ramen and mackerel. My neighbor, from what I gleaned of his open locker, had a single jar of peanut butter to his name, while the cook’s bunkie, a Native who goes by Chief, had nothing.

It was the cook’s idea on the second night of the strike to pool together our resources and share a small dinner each evening. Chief and Old Man Cribb from a few bunks down joined us. From my small hoard of food I contributed to that first meal my tortillas and sausage. Cribb threw in rice and half of a fresh onion. The cook provided dehydrated beans and a block of cheese, and Chief, having nothing, volunteered to chop the onion and to grate the cheese, which he did with a perforated Comet lid.

At the cook’s bunk we took slow pleasure in chopping and grating, mixing and stirring, as if prolonging our meal’s preparation would make us more full. To heat our food we accepted hot water from a man who owned a stinger and who throughout the strike kept a trash pale simmering beside his bunk. Indeed there was a good deal of sharing among the men. The speaker for the sex offenders, a quiet man named Tommy with a ruddy face and one sagging eye, checked up often on his constituents. Last year a softball accident—his colliding face-first with another sex offender from the opposing team—shattered his lower orbit. With his drooping eye he shuffled around the dorm in socks and shower shoes asking me and other sex offenders if we needed soups or soap or deodorant. Even across races and affiliation I witnessed acts of goodwill. I saw a Mexican man give a sleeve of crackers to an SO, an SO offer a scoop of instant coffee to a white man, a white man share half his meal with a black man. The Hispanic with the stinger told me I could have hot water whenever I needed, just ask. He had never talked to me before the strike.

By the strike’s third day we were becoming accustomed to perpetual hunger and boredom, or were at least developing ways of coping. I slept late, sipped tepid coffee to curb my appetite, and read for hours until my head ached. I organized my locker, twice. I wrote letters, mended every hole in every garment I owned, and for forty minutes I cleaned my coffee cup, over seven years’ accumulation of bean sediment, scrubbed clean with washcloth and toothpaste. Meanwhile in the bunk beside me the cook indulged in his new hobby, drawing, recreating in charcoal photos from old issues of National Geographic—stark plains, grainy barn doors, sailboats on lakes—his fingertips growing more and more sooty. We tried to play a few hands of rummy, but I kept mistaking clubs for spades, and the cook kept discarding melds. Neither of us could concentrate. For all the coffee I’d drank my mind felt mushy, my stomach watery.

I’d fasted once before, at the medium-security prison in Mississippi. There the inmates rejected sex offenders. When a white man, in his sixties, was discovered to be an SO, his white peers beat him with locks. His blood, thinner and more vivid than I’d expected, trailed across the yard from the dorms to Medical like dribbled punch. To avoid his fate and the fate of others I kept close to the Christian car and spent my bid in the Delta praising a God I don’t believe in. I sang hymns, studied the Bible, and, for three days subsisted on only water. The brothers, as they called themselves, never asked about my charge. They preached forgiveness and claimed besides that as men of God they had no interest in such earthly matters as criminal pasts. In retrospect I realize most of the those men likely had their own secrets to protect.

The fast proved difficult for sure. But the hunger strike was somehow worse. By the end of day three, food was becoming scarce and still no resolution had been reached. In my overheated sleep I dreamt of cupboards, cavernous and bare. More than once I rummaged in my locker for an overlooked morsel and found nothing. Concentration was impossible; I read and reread book passages without any comprehension. I sensed my faculties crumbling and the only thing left standing, like a chimney stack after a house fire, was my hunger.

Tommy made more rounds, asking if we needed anything. After the softball accident shattered his cheek, Lieutenant Basset had refused to admit him to a hospital. “You’re still breathing,” he said.

“Are you sure you don’t need any soups or mackerels?” Tommy asked.

“I’m fine, thanks,” I said. “Have you heard any news?”

Tommy turned his crumpled face toward the windows. “Not a thing.”

The next day, day four of the strike, the windows divulged a tip. Across the road at our sibling dorm we observed our peers there, some 500 inmates, being led single file to the administrative offices at the building’s far end. The interview process had begun.

Interviews are standard practice in a major clash. Staff must question each inmate to determine the scope of the disturbance, its causes, ramifications, and, more importantly, its perpetrators. Officer Clare conducted my interview.

“Do you know what caused the disturbance?”

“No, sir.”

“Do you know who is responsible for the disturbance?”

“No, sir.”

“Do you know if any staff or inmates are in danger?”

“No, sir.”

Officer Clare looked up from his script for the first time since I’d sat down. In the Officers’ Mess he observes a strictly meat-and-potatoes diet, eschews anything green, and never pays for his meals.

“Tell me,” he said leaning over his desk, “who around here do we need to get rid of?”

I smiled thinly. “I honestly couldn’t say, sir.”

Each interview lasted exactly three minutes, so that whether anyone cooperated or not his peers wouldn’t know and therefore no one could accuse anyone of snitching. For the remaining minute and twenty seconds of my interview, Officer Clare and I sat quietly, he marking checkboxes and I staring out the window over his shoulder. Even here in the administrative realm the windows are squat and barred, a patch of alternating steel gray and sky blue stripes, the flag of our prison nation. Around the small office was a depressing hodgepodge of electronic equipment—mismatched molded plastics, blinking LEDs, vine-like tangles of CAT-5 and USB—the grinding cogs of my captivity. I was truthful when I told Clare I knew nothing; I had only the vaguest ideas then of our grievances and of which parties were pulling the strings. Though had I known the answers, I’d have conducted myself no differently.

As soon as the interviews were over a bus pulled into the yard. Its prominent placement between the dorms seemed a deliberate threat. Moments later officers stormed the buildings armed with mace and zip ties. They swept each room, taking with them suspected instigators, agitators, and general delinquents. On our floor they detained two whites and two Mexicans. Their lockers were cleaned out on the spot, their belongings dumped into green canvas bags and carried out behind them. Through the organized commotion, nobody said a word, nobody resisted.

When the first bus had been filled, a second took its place. By evening’s end some forty of our comrades had been hauled away. Still the strike did not end. If anything the shakeup reinvigorated us, if only because we’d survived. Good fortune emboldened us and made us indignant. When the cart arrived with our evening meals we hurled insults and threats at the cops: “Fuck the poe-leece!” we cried. “Choke on your bologna, bitches!” Tommy came by and asked if I could spare him a soup. I told him I didn’t have any. Later I tossed my last bag of chips on the cook’s bunk. Old Man Cribb parted with a bag of rice and half of a bottle of squeeze cheese. The cook threw in some beans and ramen, and Chief fetched hot water from the man with the stinger. We ate our meal slowly, drinking large gulps of water between bites. Before bed I shit for the first time in three days.

On day five of the strike, at seven A.M., Mr. Shaw of bunk 47 laced up his Reeboks, pulled himself up by the frame of his bed, and took off down the dorm’s main corridor due north. For a man in his sixties, Mr. Shaw is in decent shape; had he not been locked indoors he’d have been outside walking the track, as he does every day, sometimes tacking on as many as five miles by lunchtime. In the dorm he established a moderate pace. With his chin upturned and arms swinging, he strode with the determination of a mall walker. In one hand he held a rosary. The dorm around him was quiet with the exception of some occasional light snoring. The bunks, stacked in rows like shipping containers, descended in number. Past bunk 30, Mr. Shaw yielded to a doorway and steps. He treaded carefully. A leak in the ceiling, unfixed for months, has created a perpetual puddle on the middle step and turned the dry wall above brown and soggy as a bruised apple. In the next room, Mr. Shaw resumed speed passing bunks 28, 24, 20. To his right slept the Dope Man who sells a paper of synthetic marijuana for one book of stamps, or $7. To his left slept the Cigarette Man who sells cigarettes for two books a piece. Ahead, bunk 17 laid empty. The Phone Man, who charged by the hour, two books for a flip phone and five for a smart phone, got shipped out on yesterday’s bus. Mr. Shaw pressed on, crossing the middle of the floor, which shakes slightly under the weight of so many bunks and bodies. Just before reaching the bathroom, near the dorm’s entrance, he passed a Mexican man unconscious in a chair, legs splayed, head fallen to one shoulder. Minutes ago the man had been hugging the room’s central support column as though afraid the shaky floor might finally give way. Mr. Shaw smelled the K2 smoke still lingering in the bathroom, along with the smell of raw sewage coming up from the leaky sinks. He made a U-turn at bunk 1. He retraced his steps, passing again the dope addict, treading once more over the trembling floor, the slippery steps. He picked up the pace, his heart rate elevating with the now ascending bunk numbers. He came to another room and upon entering he heard a tiny purring. The point man at the locked fire exit, whose adhesive sign has been vandalized, its “E” removed to read “XIT,” ignored him. In here, the smallest of the dorm’s three rooms, Mr. Shaw arrived quickly at the source of the noise. At bunk 70, the last in the range, a white man hovered over a prostrate and shirtless Mexican, his exposed back enflamed. The tattoo was of a young boy, dimpled, Gerber-esque, with a slick black helmet of hair. So flush was the man’s skin, so joyous was the toddler’s laughter it appeared the boy was struggling to breathe. The artist never looked up. Shaw pressed his thumb into the crook of Jesus’ arm, turned, and headed back the way he came. And in this manner he paced the dorm from one far end to the other for over an hour.

The next day the inmates decided that the bathroom ought to be cleaned. A couple of orderlies went around the dorm asking for soap donations. Each man spared what he could, a squirt of shampoo, conditioner, or body wash, or a bar of soap. I emptied the last of my Palmolive in the community mop bucket. The orderly thanked me in Spanish and moved on to solicit the next bunk.

Even with the bathrooms freshly scrubbed we looked in dire shape. Our bodies were stiff from idleness, our minds cottony from boredom. Food was scarce. Dope was scarce. Forced into sobriety, the addicts were becoming increasingly loud and obnoxious. We knew of course that the strike would eventually have to end, eventually we would have to eat. But segregated as we were from our sibling dorm, we had no way of organizing a formal surrender. The strike had become a game of chicken between the inmates. Each dorm stared at the other from across the road, neither side wanting to be the first to give in.

The next morning, day seven, we were awaken early by jangling keys. An officer from R&D had come to collect Mr. Patterson. But not because he was in any trouble. On the contrary, he was going home. We’d known he was getting short and due to leave soon. Just the night before he’d cleaned out his locker and given away what few possessions he had. To the cook he gave his headphones. To Cribb, a crossword aficionado, he gifted his good dictionary. All Mr. Peterson took with him when he left us were the clothes he wore and a laundry bag filled with letters from home, nine years worth. It seemed incredible to us, unfathomable, that he could, amidst such crises and strife, simply leave. There was a world greater than our own beyond the fence, it seemed.

But we didn’t dwell for too long on the free world or on Mr. Peterson’s leaving us. At the windows someone noticed that of the six breakfast carts delivered across the road, two had come back empty. Then at noon all six lunch carts returned empty. When moments later the noon meals arrived at our own door, an officer, the chaplain’s assistant, breezed through the rooms calling, “Chow time! Chow time! Come get your food, fellows! Everyone else is eating! Chow time! Chow time!”

Was it a trick? we wondered. Were we really the last holdouts? Can a chaplain’s assistant lie?

Old Man Cribb was the first to line up. Others followed grudgingly at first, then with only mildly suppressed veracity. The fidgeting line of men awaiting their bologna trailed the length of the dorm, from the reeking bathroom, past the Phone Man’s empty bunk, up the slippery steps, past Mr. Shaw’s bunk to the locked emergency exit marked “XIT.”

Back at my bunk I built my sandwich in my lap, squeezing every bit of mustard from its packet. The cold whole wheat and bologna stuck deliciously to the roof of my mouth. Three days later the strike officially ended when, after being assured the reinstatement of all recreation privileges, and after being threatened with the dismantling of the weight pile if we didn’t comply, the inmates went back to work.

The strike made national news, even as it was still underway. Though we had no access to televisions or telephones at the time, we heard the exaggerated and false reports on our radios and read them later in articles sent in from the outside. We laughed at some of the outrageous claims, that inmates had set fires to the dorms, that officers had to be hospitalized for secondhand exposure to drugs and sent for psychological counseling for having suffered stress and mental anguish. One report alleged the warden was assaulted. Prison officials and local union representatives used the press coverage as an opportunity to highlight Bureau-wide understaffing and underfunding, problems jeopardizing the safety of correctional officers and the public at large. Missing from these reports was any mention of inflating incarceration numbers, prison overcrowding, or stalled justice reform.

Four months since the strike, the compound has returned much to the way it was before. The televisions are back on, painting and leather working have resumed, and the rec yard has fully reopened. Despite modest improvements to perimeter security, packages, though not as frequently, can still be seen sailing over the fence, and drugs and cell phones remain pervasive. Even those forty inmates who were bussed out—the instigators and delinquents—returned to the yard, their exiles invalidated by a paperwork flub. So unchanged is the prison today, one wonders what the strike was about, or whether it even happened at all.

It took a full day to get the Officers’ Mess back in order when the cook and I returned from our ten-day hiatus. The vegetables in the cooler had wilted, the butter had soured, and the roasts and poultry had turned a stinking gray. We cooked a batch of barbecue sauce and marinated some fresh chicken, and when we reopened the following day we greeted the officers, and they us, with wide grins. No hard feelings. There was even some light ribbing on both sides.

“Did you men enjoy your vacations?” they asked.

We laughed graciously. “Sir, it looks like you’ve lost almost as much weight as we have.”

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The Short-timer: Sexual Assault Goes Ignored.

I heard a cry, injured and outraged, a cry so loud that in the profound silence that followed I could sense by its echo the precise size and shape of the darkened dorm room, the heights of its ceilings, the compositions of its walls, could count the number of soft bodies scurrying like mice past my bunk.

Moments later I felt a tap on my shoulder and opened my eyes to see the cook’s silhouette hovering over me.

“They beat up the baker,” he said.

“Who? Why?”

The cook said he didn’t know.

As a young boy I intuited that by focusing my closed eyes on the center of my forehead, I could, on restless nights, still my mind to eventually fall asleep. Later I learned this meditative trick was not particular to me. In Hindu religion the center of the forehead, the third eye, is believed a source of power and insight. But for hours after the attack I searched the space between my eyes and could find no peace. I laid awake seeing through my third eye the baker being beaten in his bunk. I saw his arms thrashing in the dark, his legs entangling themselves in the sheets, his body curling into itself like a sow bug’s.

Come morning I asked my neighbor, the new guy, the short-timer, what he thought of having witnessed his first prison fight.

“What fight?” he said.

“The fight last night. You didn’t hear the screaming?”

The short-timer shook his head. He’d fallen asleep with earphones in his ears and a cap pulled down over his head to block out the night light above his bunk, potentially dangerous habits in an environment where vigilance is key, though the short-timer didn’t know this. There were many things the short-timer didn’t know about prison. He didn’t know for example that he’d fallen prey within his first week to the dorm’s resident barber, who’d offered to trim his beard for free. I warned him nothing is free, certainly nothing in prison, but he wouldn’t listen. Then one evening a honey bun appeared on his pillow, followed by a less subtle invitation to join the barber in the showers after lights out. “I hate it when you’re right,” the short-timer said to me, for in teaching him the ways of prison I’d been proven right about many things. It amused me to see him struggle in those first weeks. I recognized in his smooth flush face the ignorance and bewilderment of my younger self, the confoundedness over the seating arrangements, the politics, the hourly controlled movements. The violence.

“They beat the baker with bars of soap,” I told the short-timer. His eyes widened. “We don’t know who did it or why.”

With the baker gone, detained indefinitely, the cook and I were left to manage the Officers’ Mess by ourselves. We learned quickly in those first hectic days that baking isn’t so much an acquired skill as it is a talent, one that requires patience and finesse. The cook, whose style is to throw roughly chopped ingredients in a pot and set them ablaze, struggled especially. His first baking experiment, donut holes, came out misshapen and were mistaken by the officers for hush puppies.

Meanwhile I set aside my broom and dustpan to share the cooking responsibilities. I cooked often for myself in the free world but never for a crowd, never for my captors. For my first attempt I chose meatballs. The cook stood at my elbow offering me suggestions: “Why don’t you add some garlic powder, or some Italian seasoning?” Italian seasoning! My mother would bite her finger at the blasphemy! Like most Italians, she is dogmatic about food; to cook is to preserve tradition. I skipped the garlic powder and Italian seasoning and prepared the meatballs as she taught me years ago, as her father taught her, adding to the ground beef onion and grated parmesan, and binding the mixture with egg and bread soaked in water. Because breadcrumbs, my mother says, make the balls tough.

The meatballs were well-received. A few officers even came back for second helpings. But to me the dish was a disappointment and tasted nothing like my mother’s. The institutional beef was grisly, the fake parmesan flat-tasting, the fresh parsley missing entirely. My mother consoled me over the phone. Her own meatballs, she told me, never quite taste like her father’s. Which led me to imagine a generational line of receding platters, each dish tasting similar to the one before it, but the last tasting nothing like the original, which has been lost to the horizon.

As November gave way to December, the cook began planning a New Year’s Eve celebration for our closest friends and neighbors. He drew up a commissary list and divvied it among the guests, putting his bunkie in charge of the chips and cheese and me the rice and meats. The short-timer was asked to bring the sodas. He’d adjusted well to prison after shaking the barber. He’d settled into a healthy routine, exercising in the afternoons and studying real estate in the evenings. He’d even found himself a decent clique of people his age. One night they took to drawing gently mocking caricatures of each other, the short-timer’s strong Spanish nose resembling those of the colossi. Hearing their laughter struck in me a jealous chord. I envied the short-timer’s youth and resilience. I envied his light sentence—a bullet for a minor aircraft accident. With fewer than twelve months to serve, he enjoyed, though he couldn’t have appreciated it, the assurance that prison would not disrupt the course of life, would not change who he is.

And then one day he disappeared. His bunkie hadn’t seen him. His clique couldn’t find him. When he failed to show for the four o’clock census count we could only assume he’d been thrown in the SHU, though for what transgression we couldn’t imagine, as benign as he was. The cook and I discussed safekeeping his belongings until he returned; in his ignorance he hadn’t bothered to buy a combination lock, assuming nobody would ever steal from him.

But then, after dinner, as quickly as he’d vanished he reappeared, walking across the yard toward the dorm with a noticeably tender step. A pain, he told us, like being kicked in the stomach, had caused him to collapse that morning. He was wheeled to medical and from there escorted in cuffs and chains to a waiting ambulance in front of the prison. At the local hospital a doctor found a mass in the short-timer’s groin. This didn’t surprise him. He’d discovered the lump himself days earlier and reported to sick-call. Mr. Alvarez, the prison’s physician, recommended that he masturbate.

“Excuse me?”

“You new to prison,” Alvarez said. “No sex here gets you backed up. You try masturbating.”

Mr. Alvarez’s curious brand of homoerotic medicine has long been a source of humor among the inmates at Big Spring FCI, and even among the staff, whom I’ve heard refer to him as Dr. Longfinger (though he carries no Ph.D.). Alvarez is notorious for prescribing masturbation and for initiating seemingly needless prostate exams. Once during a routine checkup, he asked the baker if he was circumcised, and then, when he answered yes, asked to see it.

The doctor at the hospital told the short-timer to ignore Alvarez’s advice; masturbation would only worsen the pain. For a proper diagnosis he would need to consult a urologist. He was prescribed pain medicine in the meantime.

Come New Year’s Eve the cook and I pulled the mattress from his bunk and lined the bare metal frame with newspaper. Over this we emptied six bags of tortilla chips and strewed like birdseed handfuls of rice, meat, and cheese. All told our nacho spread covered the bunk edge-to-edge and measured roughly sixteen square feet, enough food to feed twelve men.

They arrived after the evening count, and we seated ourselves around the cook’s bunk as if at an altar. With spoons and fingers we began at the edges and ate our ways inward. Early in the meal someone remarked that our nacho spread had taken on the shape of the U.S., with the cook and his bunkie gorging south through the Canadian border and Jack and I carving out the Florida peninsula. My yoga instructor G nibbled along the California coast while, beside him, the short-timer plowed a chip through his home state of New Mexico.

There were games too. Someone brought Scattergories, not the official game but a handmade version with the prompts typed and pasted onto cardstock and the lettered die replaced with Scrabble tiles drawn from an old sock.

“Something you eat raw.”

“Vagina,” replied the cook when it came his turn.

Not just at the cook’s bunk but all throughout the dorm and across the compound inmates celebrated the New Year. From where I sat I observed Mexicans rolling tamales, heard music blaring from headphones, smelled smoke wafting from the bathroom. Three bunks down I saw a man sitting comatose, hands limp, mouth open, eyes staring without seeing. It was this addict, we had learned later, who’d plotted the baker’s assault. The addict owed the baker money, nearly a hundred dollars in stamps bought on credit to pay for dope. Rather than resolve the debt the addict lied to some gang members, telling them the baker was a snitch so that they’d smash him. No more baker, no more debt.

Over all this raucous of violence and smoke, music and laughter, I felt an urge to take the short-timer by the face and insist that he remember twelve convicts in federal prison eating nachos and playing Scattergories on New Year’s Eve. Instead I turned to the shiningly oblivious short-timer and asked for his answer.

“Vegetables,” he said, striking Jack’s point. And the two men glared playfully at one another from across the nachos, which by then had shrunk to the sole state of Iowa.

That night when I woke to piss I happened to see the short-timer roll over and his pillow fall from his top bunk to the floor. I picked it up and handed it to him.

“Trouble sleeping?” I asked.

He nodded and told me he’d taken an ibuprofen before bed, his sixth that day, but still couldn’t sleep. Since returning from the hospital he’d received from Health Services pain meds that did little for the pain and an antibiotic that had done nothing for the swelling in his groin. When asked when he’d see a urologist, as recommended by the hospital, Health Services Administrator Crnkovitch told the short-timer that she was not obligated to follow the hospital’s recommendation and threatened to write him up for insolence if he didn’t stop bugging her.

In keeping with their resolutions the officers dining in the Mess observed strict diets in the first month of the new year. Officer Brammer ordered his Bolognese without pasta. Chief Psychologist Dr. Tubb requested her chicken deboned, its meat reserved for her salad, its skin thrown away. Mr. Alvarez in his halting accent ordered his burger sans bun with “two jesus,” while Officer Daniel eliminated cheese from her diet entirely—”Too much glycerin,” she said. Even our boss Mr. Salinas had become health conscious after his doctor, he admitted to us in one of his amicable moods, had recommended he lose weight. Only once did he cheat to try my first stab at baking, a lime cookie, which he complained made his asshole pucker.

Many officers returned from their end-of-year vacations sporting shiny new fitness trackers, and while eating they compared statistics to see who’d burned the most calories and walked the most miles. Meanwhile the short-timer, who had pledged to get in shape during his bid, who had taken up cardio classes and yoga and even weight lifting, had to stop working out altogether. Even walking the track aggravated his condition, which by March had still gone undiagnosed.

Then one day there came hope when the short-timer saw on the daily roster that he’d been scheduled for a medical checkup. He reported at noon to the clinic, where Mr. Alvarez ushered him past the blue out-of-bounds line on the floor and into a small exam room and closed the door.

“Did Longfinger stick his finger up your ass?” I asked.

The short-timer, normally good-humored, looked away. We’d been standing in line in the chow hall when he told me the story. Apparently my joke missed the mark.

“So what happened?”

Alvarez closed the exam room door and asked the short-timer to pull down his pants. Obediently he unclasped his belt and slid his khaki trousers and brown institutional boxers down to his knees. Alvarez asked if he’d tried masturbating. He said he hadn’t. With a gloved hand Alvarez reached for the short-timer and began to stroke.

“Does that feel good?” he asked.

The short-timer pushed him away.

Alvarez reached out again, took hold of the short-timer’s penis, and started to bring it to his mouth.

Again the short-timer pushed him away, harder this time.

Alvarez straightened in his chair. “I get you appointment with urologist if you keep this between us. But if you tell you’ll be in serious trouble.”

That night I witnessed the assault through my third eye. I saw Alvarez taking the short-timer in his gloved hand and bringing him to his mouth with the same restrained attentiveness with which he handles his fork in the Officers’ Mess. I imagined him delivering his demand for complicity and threat of retaliation as assuredly as he orders his burgers—”no bun, two jesus.” In the bunk beside mine the short-timer tossed and turned, whether out of pain or fear I didn’t know.

At work the next morning, more sex scandal in the news: Trump denies knowledge of hush money, more Weinstein victims come forward, and Mario Batali is the latest to join the ever-growing list of accused. The cook, pulling an overflowing cake from the oven, asked if I’d ever been sexually assaulted in prison. The question caught me off guard. I looked up from the pile of onions I’d been chopping, eyes stinging, and wondered if I knew what sexual assault really is. On my second day in prison I recalled a white supremacist cornering me in my cell, rubbing his dick through his shorts, and telling me I have pretty teeth. I was scared, certainly, but I hadn’t considered myself a victim. Perhaps I am, as my prosecutor had argued, the perpetrator; every glimpse of every child in every picture on my computer had been, essentially, a rape.

“No,” I said to the cook finally. “I’ve never been assaulted.”

Later that afternoon when the medical staff came in to eat I was surprised to see Alvarez among them. Certainly for justice to have intervened so quickly would have been surprising; the short-timer, after fleeing the clinic and immediately reporting the assault, had been told that an investigation could take weeks to even begin. Still, if not by administrative force I imagined shame might have kept Alvarez away, holed up in his office. Yet there he was, well-groomed as usual, his shirt pressed, his salt-and-pepper mustache trimmed. I perceived no heaviness in his step that might have suggested guilt. On the contrary he seemed cool and untroubled when he approached the counter, which irritated me.

“Good afternoon, sir. Today we have meatballs and spaghetti or baked chicken.”

Alvarez peered over the steam table. “Just the meatballs,” he said. “No pasta.”

“Yes, sir, just the balls for Mr. Alvarez.”

Later at their table I heard the nurses break into laughter and looked up to see Alvarez sitting among them, fork poised, looking pleased with himself. Here is a man, I thought, who has gotten away with things in the past and who believes beyond all doubt he will get away with more.

In the months following the assault, the staff adopted a sudden superficial interest in the short-timer’s health. Health Services Administrator Crnkovitch, who had once threatened to write the short-timer a shot for insolence, pulled him aside at mainline and asked him how he was doing, told him to “hang in there” and to keep taking the prescribed meds, which had done nothing for him. Chief Psychologist Dr. Tubb called him to her office to give him tips and practices for alleviating stress. One such exercise involved squeezing a racquet ball, an irony that seemed lost on her.

The staff had no doubt caught a whiff of legal liability, if not for medical negligence then for their mishandling of the assault investigation—Alvarez himself confronted the short-timer, asking him at pill-line if he’d ever read the Ten Commandments. So strong had the stench of illegality become that in their session on relieving stress, Dr. Tubb flatly asked the short-timer, on behalf of the warden and executive staff, if he’d be willing to drop his assault claim. He refused.

Before he was released in May the short-timer requested a copy of his prison medical records. The records showed that on the date of the assault, Alvarez approved the short-timer’s consultation with a urologist. The long-awaited concession, however, could only be seen as posturing, since Alvarez would have known, with the bureaucracy as slow as it is and with only weeks left in the short-timer’s sentence, that the short-timer would have had no chance in ever seeing a specialist before his release. To be clear, the short-timer suffered with his condition for nearly half a year, and in that time and up to his release he received no official diagnosis and no meaningful treatment. Instead he was threatened, sexually assaulted, bribed, patronized, and plainly ignored by the staff at Big Spring FCI.

The records also revealed that Mr. Alvarez later made a surreptitious addendum to the short-timer’s medical file, adding that there’d been an unnamed male RN present in the exam room.

Mr. Alvarez was never disciplined and continues to see inmates to this day.

Before he left for the halfway house we threw the short-timer a party. At an outdoor picnic table we shared barbecue nachos and a cake made from half a dozen layered confections pressed together in a Tupperware. Someone emptied a jug of iced water over his head. The short-timer made me promise to wake him the next morning, before leaving for work, so that we could say goodbye. But come morning I only stood at his bunk and studied his quiet face. I broke my promise and left him as he was, knowing that sleep hadn’t come easy.

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The Weight Pile

The cook is getting fat. The baker too. The advantage to working in the Officers’ Mess, what makes it the most coveted work detail on the compound, is its offer of unlimited food. The cook, the baker, and I are allowed to eat whatever and however much we wish. It was an unfathomable proposition to swallow so to speak when reporting to work that first morning the cook set before me an egg and cheese sandwich. Just beyond the OM door, in the main mess hall, inmates were sitting down to a breakfast of runny grits and whole wheat bread. I looked at my sandwich. Its toasted bun shined with grease. I felt uneasy, undeserving even. The cook, laughing, pushed the plate closer, told me not to worry, told me I’d adjust. And adjust I did. After tiring of egg sandwiches I moved on to soft-boiled eggs with buttered toast. This followed by poached eggs followed by eggs over easy. Lately I’ve taken to six-egg omelets with tomato, spinach, and cheese.

One day our boss Mr. Salinas, in one of his cheery moods (a mood I trust even less than his typical dour mood), asked each of us how much weight we’d gained since coming to work in the OM. The cook admitted to thirty-five pounds. The baker, his eyes trained on a frosted sheet cake, replied, “Five to ten.” The cook and I looked at each other. Just last Friday the baker went to Laundry to exchange his pants, which he claimed were too short. Touchy about most things, from baking to politics, the cook and I ignore the baker’s excessive weight gain. We pretend not to notice he’s developed a waddle and that his ass often brushes us when traversing the narrow galley kitchen. We hold back laughter when the Mexicans in the dish room call him Cookie. If Salinas doubted the veracity of the baker’s five- to-ten-pound gain, he didn’t let on, and he turned instead his attention to me. He was about to ask how much weight I’d gained when he stopped himself, pursed his lips, and said, “Never mind. You don’t gain weight.”

Salinas is wrong however. In the past year I’ve gained some fifteen pounds of lean mass, this according to Reed, an inmate who runs the nutrition class and who regularly measures inmates’ body compositions. I arrive at his classroom door every month to strip down to my shorts and step on his scale. With steel calipers he pinches my body, first my arm, then above my nipple, then beside my belly button, and finally my thigh. He consults his chart, plugs numbers into a calculator, and tells me that I’ve gained just over a pound of muscle this month. My body fat holds steady at 6.3 percent, the lowest on the compound.

I record this month’s numbers in my fitness journal and plot my lean mass on a line graph using the straight edge of my inmate ID. For the past two years the line has steadily climbed, save for July of last year. Here the line plummets like a cliff crumbling into black sea. I was spending three hours a day in the gym then trying to keep my head above the brackish water and the other nine in my bunk idly fantasizing about hanging myself. (That month in suicide watch training we learned that a great height isn’t necessary for hanging; one only needs to tether his neck to any stationary object—say, a chair back—and lean serenely forward.)

I lost nine pounds that month. My body fat dropped to 5.3 percent. Reed became worried. “God forbid there’s a riot and we get locked down. I don’t think you’d survive on Johnny sacks.”

Lately my breakwater is holding strong. Tonight depression is only a dark line on the horizon, calm and faraway. Jack on the other hand is in a hateful mood. He slips quarters on the bar while muttering to himself, cursing the heat and wind, cursing the Mexicans for hogging the free weights, cursing himself even. For what? I ask.

“I’m fat,” he says.

“You’re not fat.”

He lifts his sweaty T-shirt and squeezes the sad white pucker of flab. “Am too.”

Jack and I have been lifting weights together for the past two years, and Jack’s been working out solo since shortly after he got locked up four years ago. As he settles onto the incline bench, myself poised to spot him from behind, I’m reminded of advice an art teacher gave me. She said a work of art that has become overly familiar, a portrait especially, can be studied afresh by looking at it upside down. In this way, I look down on Jack’s transposed features and see the lines, shapes, and colors resolve themselves anew. I see again his sharp Aryan nose and cheekbones, the smooth upturned plane of his lower lip, watery-blue eyes shrouded behind blonde lash. With every rep the tendons in his neck stand out like charcoal lines in a figure sketch.

You can learn a lot about a person by working out with him. I know for example in the way one side of the bar tends to drift toward the rack that Jack’s left side is stronger than his right. I know of his obsessive compulsiveness in his insistence that we rotate always counterclockwise around the bench and never clockwise. The familiarity of his workouts reveals a fear of failing at anything new. He is manic in the way he lifts, performing obscene numbers of sets with hardly any rest between, impatiently jerking the bar from its pegs rather than allowing me to help him unrack. I imagine he was as desperate in his drug use on the outside as he is now with his workouts. Exercise is his new addiction. And it’s paid off. Jack’s lost some seventy pounds since he’s been locked up, though his self-hatred doesn’t allow him to see this accomplishment. If only he could see himself upside down. I once asked Jack why when he came to prison he decided to get in shape. He said it was the only way he’d be able to convince people that he’d changed.

“Speaking of fat,” Jack says racking the bar, “I overheard someone in the chow hall today comment on how fat your coworkers have gotten.”

“It’s true,” I admit. “The baker’s blown up. And just today the cook went in for a new belt, and they told him they don’t stock his size. They said they’d have to make him a belt.” We move counterclockwise around the bench. I take a seat in the saddle, reach for the bar, run my hands over the knurls. Jack stands behind me ready to spot.

“Of course, you on the other hand are looking incredible,” Jack says. “No, seriously. Look at those veins.”

“You drug addicts and your obsession with veins.”

“Look around this weight pile and show me one man more ripped than you. Have you seen yourself in the mirror lately?”

His question is somewhat rhetorical, as prison has no proper mirrors. In Mississippi each cell was fitted with a square of sheet metal polished to a warbly chrome finish, too small for anything but shaving and combing one’s hair. Here the mirrors are slightly larger but public. (It occurs to me how the free world by comparison is all but paved in mirrors, every surface glassy and gilded, the product of a society in love with its reflection.) Over the course of seven years I’d come to lose all awareness of my body for the lack of mirrors, until one day in the privacy of the OM bathroom I discovered I could view the entire length of my torso in the medicine cabinet by standing on the toilet. I was taken aback by how foreign my body had become and by how much it had changed. My shoulders had broadened. My chest had been redrawn in hard lines, and my stomach, once soft and shapeless, had been reworked and fired to hard ceramic. I unbuckled my pants. The sight of my penis made me feel inexplicably lonely. I came in the sink as Salinas was banging on the door, cursing in Spanish. He had to piss.

The outdoor pavilion that houses the weight pile is hot and crowded tonight. The orange water coolers sitting on the pile’s retaining wall have gone dry, and the Mexicans at the flat bench stand with their shirts raised fanning their bellies. Most of the dumbbells lie stacked around them like an iron fortress. They won’t use half of them but squat on them regardless so that the sex offenders can’t use them. This makes little difference to the SO’s who have setup a circuit at the squat rack. One man keeps time while another plows through a series of dead lifts, pull-ups, box jumps, and burpees. His grunts are drowned out by three black men at the curl bar beside Jack and me. The light-skinned man they call Yellow is boasting of the many women he’s slept with. He says when he gets out he’s going to snag himself a sugar momma. “I need me one of them es-phisticated bitches, one with a job and a 401 K.”

Jack, adding dimes and nickels to the bar, spits an epithet beneath his breath.

A white former cellmate, well-meaning and intending to educate me on the finer points of prison and life in general, explained to me once that not every black person is a nigger. Anyone, he said, can be a nigger. A nigger is defined not by race or color but by attitude and behavior. I was offended, of course; being new to prison I was offended by most everything. In years since, I’ve become numb to prejudice. It isn’t that prejudice is more prevalent in prison than in the free world, only more blatant. Jack once referred to the compound’s then newest queer—a flouncy Hispanic boy with plucked eyebrows—as a faggot. When he realized what he’d said he turned to me and apologized. “No offense. You know what I mean.” And strangely, I did. That I’ve come to understand this distinction—that as not every African American is a nigger, not every homosexual is faggot—makes me wonder if prison hasn’t turned me prejudice.

Jack bangs out three, six, eight reps. On his tenth rep I remind him to keep his ass in the seat before helping him rack the bar. Beside us Yellow drops the pair of dumbbells he’s been curling, and I feel the crash reverberate in the mat beneath our feet. “They’re going to break those weights,” Jack says, “if they keep throwing them around like that.”

The cook has commented before that Jack and I make for an unlikely friendship. Jack is high-strung, a former meth addict and self-proclaimed neo-Nazi. But I’ve seen Jack start to cry when speaking of his elderly mother. Perhaps I’m not so prejudice after all if I can see past his shortcomings. I’ve come to find his racist rants and anti-Semitic jokes amusing, to appreciate the unapologeticness of his bigotry. In the OM I overhear Officer Harwood say that the Obamas should stay in Chicago where they belong. Health Services Administrator Crnkovitch tells a table of colleagues she sees no reason she should go out of her way to give “some thug” his prescription pain medicine. In some ways I think Jack’s brand of naked prejudice is far less dangerous than its subtle, casual sibling.

Jack and I switch places. I straddle the bench, plant my feet in the mat, position my grip, inhale, exhale. I’d never lifted weights before coming to prison. I worked in the tech industry for eight years. On forms at the optometrist’s when asked how many hours a day I spend looking at a screen I checked the box marked “10+.” In high school I got picked dead last for team sports, which in itself isn’t extraordinary, until you consider one of my classmates was legally blind. As a shy kid I was turned off by the social aspects of athletics, so I wrote myself off as athletically incapable when really I’d never tried. It surprises me now, in my thirties, to find myself swinging dumbbells and bear crawling and skipping rope. What’s more surprising is that I enjoy these things. Yoga especially.

That I should have discovered this quiet and reflective practice in prison is ironic. I came to yoga when one morning I saw a small black man standing on his head in the middle of the gym surrounded by five students. They looked like Stonehenge. I approached the yogi after class. “Of course you can join us, Youngster! Be here tomorrow morning, eight o’clock.”

G, as he’s known on the yard, is in his sixties, has graying cornrows, and greets each of his students at the beginning of class with a handshake and hug. On the street he was a fitness instructor and two-time bank robber. At the beginning of each class he gives newcomers the same advice. “Gentlemen,” he says, “remember to go where your body allows you. Don’t be afraid to use those foam rollers if you need them. Your center is your belly button. Do not be afraid to pass gas.”

His students sway and stumble and collapse to their mats in huffs of exhaustion. Through the calamity G maintains his usual calm, standing on his head, his legs scissoring serenely in the air with nary a hitch in his voice. “Breathe, gentlemen. I want you relaxed from your nose to your toes. Feel those lines of energy.” Only once have I witnessed G’s cool demeanor wrinkle. Some Mexicans playing basketball nearby kept losing their ball in the middle of our circle. G, not breaking from his plank, shot them a look that made the hairs of my upward facing dog stand on end. The cook, who happens to know G from time they served together in Hurlong, warned me that G is not a man to be reckoned with. “He’s the nicest guy in the world until you fuck with him.” This he told me in G’s presence, with G grinning and nodding beside him. “It’s true,” G said. “I’m only nice because I choose to be nice.” He then described in chillingly methodical terms how he cuts his opponents, naming and pointing out major arteries on his body as a forecaster points out fronts on a weather map. “I’m not just going to cut you; I’m going to tell you where I’m going to cut you first.”

For all his robustness, G’s sciatica has been worsening lately, a problem the medical staff has largely ignored (—Why concern themselves with helping “some thug”?) One morning the pain must have been especially bad. After our usual embrace, he pointed me to his mat in the center of the circle. From that morning on I’ve played the class model, bending and twisting as G calls out the poses and walks around nudging and massaging students into position. “Gentleman, I want you to watch Youngster demonstrate a triangle. Go on, Youngster, show us a triangle.” Obediently I bend sideways at the hip to place one hand flat on the mat while extending the other up over my head. I imagine a string tied to my index finger, gently tugging my arm higher. I follow the silken thread with my mind’s eye, up over the gym, over the fence line, into the atmosphere.

I look up now at the bar pressing into my hands, try to clear my mind and ignore the banter beside me. “I know you didn’t do no three sets, nigga!” Yellow barks. “Sit yo ass down and finish yo set.” Above me, beyond the bar, pigeons roost in the pavilion’s rafters. I once told Jack that we’ll open a chain of outdoor gyms when we get out called The Weight Pile: it’ll be strewn with bird shit, offer rusted weights, and close at 8:30.

“Nigga, I know you ain’t using no weak-ass thirty-fives. Shit, nigga. Grab you these forties here.”

I press the bar, exhaling, and in the corner of my eye I see Yellow grab the forty-pound dumbbells at my feet.

“You’re going to ask to borrow those, aren’t you?”

Yellow’s lip curls. “Whatchoo talking ’bout?”

“Those forties. We’re using them.”

“No you ain’t. These our forties. You don’t use forties.”

“We are using them.”

“Bullshit. We always use the forties. You took them from us.”

Jack, who’d been standing over my shoulder counting reps, pipes in.

“Man, I saw him grab those from the rack. We didn’t take your weights.”

Yellow lets the dumbbells drop and takes a step toward Jack. The Mexicans go quiet. The SO’s go quiet. It occurs to me that in my hand is a bar; the bar weighs forty-five pounds; its tether is broken; it’s the only bar on the weight pile not secured to its bench. That these facts should have aligned themselves in my head surprises and scares me. Jack edges closer to Yellow. He’s in Yellow’s face. High-yellow, as they say. Gums bubblegum pink. Teeth ivory. I didn’t know color until I came to prison.

“What the fuck, man,” Jack says.

“You gonna do something?” says Yellow.

The two men are inches from each other’s faces. I continue pressing the bar, because I’m afraid of what will happen if I have to stop, because I’ve never fought anyone before, only ever play wrestled with my brother when we were kids. He used to pin me to the ground, pinch my nipples, and tell me to whistle.

I press the bar. My chest burns. “Let it go, Jack.”

Neither man moves.

I inhale through my nose, exhale through my teeth. I dig my feet deeper into the mat and push.

“Jack,” I say again. “Let it go.”

Yellow sneers. “You heard your partner. Let it go.”

And so he does. I rack the bar as Jack takes a step back. My shoulders and hands tremble. We spend the last few minutes of our workout doing flyes, Jack maniacally, explosively so. Walking back to the dorm, seething, tearing at his gloves, Jack promises to me all the things he would have said and done had there not been two of us and three of them. He promises to someday move to Maine or to Iceland or to some remote wood in Canada, someplace where the niggers don’t live, he says.

I remind Jack that Canada doesn’t take ex-felons.

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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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