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.
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.
“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.