Running–even walking fast– is strictly prohibited on the compound, so you can imagine my alarm when I was headed towards the Dining Hall for dinner and saw a mob of inmates running across the compound yard.
“That can’t be good,” I said to myself. I peered through the chaos in search of a cause but saw no swinging fists or bloody brawls. I remembered last month when a Mexican was stabbed out on the rec yard. I overheard two guys who witnessed it say it was like watching a wounded gazelle in one of those nature documentaries; he ran around all saucer-eyed and bloodied looking for the shelter of the nearest guard.
Mississippi, in case you didn’t know, has the highest obesity rate in the nation (we also have the lowest life expectancy). The truth of this statistic became abundantly clear the first time I witnessed the staff respond to an incident.
I was sitting in the library reading a book when I looked out the window to see a dozen officers running across the yard. They looked like a bunch of kids at a fat camp, arms flailing, eyes bulging, stomachs bouncing, keys and sunglasses slapping up and down and every which way. Meanwhile, a group of inmates stood at the window placing bets on which staff member would be the first to make it to the other end of the compound.
Not long after losing sight of them, I looked up again to see them running in the opposite direction–they had gone the wrong way.
The encore turned out even better than the first act. Some of their legs couldn’t keep up with the momentum of their large torsos which gave the impression that their upper halves were in a race against their lower halves and the upper halves were winning. A few looked as if they’d collapse forward at any moment.
I never did see what they were running after, nor did I see what was causing the commotion this afternoon when dozens of inmates were fleeing across the compound. As I turned around to go back to the unit (just to be safe), I noticed the sky ahead had turned a muddy color. That’s when an ungodly gust of wind and grit nearly knocked me backwards, and I realized that it was a dust storm that was causing the panic.
After dinner, when the storm had passed, all of the alcoves and nooks around the compound were piled with trash–empty soda cans, cartons of Blue Bell ice cream, foil packets of Ramen Noodle seasoning. The place looked like a third world country. But later that evening, while standing outside the chapel waiting for the 6 o’clock service to begin, the muddy skies turned a beautiful melancholy gray, and it rained for the first time in three weeks.
Every time it rains, I think about what my older brother told me when I first started driving. He warned that roads are always slipperiest during the first few minutes of rainfall when the dirt and oil on the road begin to mix with the water. Traction gradually improves as the bile is washed away. Watching the rain from beneath the chapel’s corrugated awning, I imagined the entire compound being bathed in the evening shower and washed of all the fear and sadness that seem to cling to every surface.
My thoughts were interrupted when Victor, a fellow Christian, called out to me.
“Praise, God!” he cried reaching to shake my hand. Victor is a squat Mexican in his mid-50’s. We always sit together during the Monday evening service.
“Praise, God!” he said again. “We needed rain, and God delivered. Yes, he did. God delivered.” Victor looked up at me and smiled beneath his large mustache, and I nodded in agreement. “Where’s your celly? Is he coming?” He was referring to my cell mate Roger.
“I don’t know. I didn’t see him at dinner; he may not show,” I said.
Victor snorted and rolled his head towards the wet sky. “You know what his problem is?” he asked. “He’s lazy! He doesn’t realize that God is the answer to all his problems!”
I nodded slightly trying to remain neutral. To be honest, I was glad that Roger never came to service. I spend all day in a cell with the guy, and the chapel remains my only Roger-free refuge.
After a minute of intense silence, Victor said, “You know, people have been making bets.”
“Oh, Yeah? What kind of bets?” I asked, not sure if I really wanted to know. I was already aware of the many rumors being spread about me–rumors that Roger and I are lovers and that I financially support him.
Victor smiled at the rain. “They’re betting you won’t last three months living with Roger–I give it two at most.”
I broke out into laughter, partly because it’s true–Roger really is a pain in the ass–but I was also relieved that there hadn’t been any new rumors.
It’s been one month since Roger asked me to move into his cell, and at the time, it seemed like a great idea. Roger had been so helpful and eager to teach me the ins and outs of prison, and he was the one who suggested I associate with the Christians. He also seemed rational and easy to get along with, more so than the other inmates.
Roger is the spitting image of Gandhi; with his bald, kiwi-shaped head, gaunt face, short stature, and dark complexion. By blood, he is part Mexican and Filipino. By faith, he is Jewish (he converted from catholicism), yet he has a decidedly Jewish-looking nose with large, protruding ears, one of which has a peculiar deformity, a tiny notch on the outer edge that makes his ear look as if it were a chipped diner plate.
I guess the relationship began to sour two weeks in when he professed his love for me. His exact words were, “I think I’m falling in love with you.”
At the time, I sort of brushed the comment off, called him silly, and climbed into bed hoping all would be forgotten.
A few nights later, however, after I had turned out the lights and began the ascent towards my top bunk, he called out to me from below and asked, “Can you just cuddle with me?” His voice sounded small and child-like.
“No,” I said sternly. “Hold your pillow.”
Tensions began to mount from there. It started with petty criticisms. He’d criticize the way I do laundry, how I hang a towel to dry, how I walk, how I stand, and even criticize me for being too quiet if I were trying to read a book or write a letter.
Then came the absurd demand that I leave the room at certain times of the day so that he could masturbate. No matter how agreeable or cooperative I tried to be, he wouldn’t let up. One day he screamed and cursed at me for needing to use the restroom after he had just got done cleaning the floor of our cell, and he ordered me to get out. He said I was being inconsiderate. I dreaded even being in the room when he was around; there was no telling what would set him off.
The situation continued to deteriorate until one night, I finally snapped. He asked for a simple favor: to full his mug of Ramen Noodle with hot water from the tap while he showered. In an attempt to salvage the relationship, I obliged and had his soup waiting for him when he got out.
“Was there no hot water?” he asked pushing the noodles around with a spoon
“Not much,” I said.
He set the mug down on the desk and began to pace anxiously around the room. Finally, he asked, “Have you ever had cold soup before?”
“You mean like gaspacho?” I asked, playing dumb I knew where this conversation was headed, but surely he wasn’t about to blame me for there not being any hot water.
“No,” he said dropping his head. “I mean have you ever had cold Ramen Noodle?” It’s not very good.” He grabbed the mug and emptied the noodles into the toilet and flushed.
I couldn’t believe it. He was actually throwing a tantrum over cold soup. He continued to pace, which isn’t easy in an 8-by 12-foot space, until he finally said, “I know you have more common sense than to bring me cold soup. . . .”
“And I know you have two legs and arms and could’ve gotten the damn soup yourself,” I shot back. There was anger writhing through my body now.
“Well, it’s common sense,” he began, “that if the water’s not hot, you shouldn’t have filled up the mug. . . .”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” My hands were shaking and my voice was shrill. “Just shut the fuck up! If I hadn’t gotten the soup, you would have bitched about that, too! You’re acting like a goddamn child! Just shut the fuck up!”
I lost it. I was livid, but my outburst was about more than just cold Ramen–I was angry about everything: his ungratefulness and criticisms; the absurd demands; the condescension; the unwanted advances; the egotism and arrogance; the hoarding and messiness; the obscene number of times he takes a piss in any given hour and his inability to flush the goddamn toilet; the incessantly loud music he plays at all hours of the day, including at night while sleeping; the nauseating smells of his cologne and farts that smell like coffee; the snoring; the stupid bird beak nose and fuzzy, kiwi head; the ear that looks like a chipped dinner plate; and yes, the cold Ramen–that damned cold Ramen. I hated him, hated it all, hated the whole God forsaken place.
I was fuming. I wanted to climb onto his back, grab ahold of his ears, and tear his Gandhi-head from his shoulders, but I knew that wouldn’t happen. Roger, too, knew it would’t happen, and my anger turned to sadness and self-loathing as I realized that I’m still the same scared boy that I was in high school and just as weak now as I was then.
I thought, perhaps foolishly, that chapter in my life had ended as soon as I was handed my diploma. I thought I could avenge the wrongs of high school by graduating college and landing a great job in a great career and by becoming more successful than any of my old tormentors, and I did just that. For a brief while, I had won.
But fights in prison, like in high school, aren’t fought with college degrees and success. They’re fought with hands and fists and belts and locks. All of those accomplishments I had, or once had, mean nothing here, and when confronted with prospect of a fight that night, I retreated feeling humiliated and ashamed.