Half Alive

An inmate once exclaimed, “It’s as hot as a swamp out here,” and I pointed out to him that the prison is indeed built on what was once a swamp. Alligators live a mere fifty yards away in the undeveloped marsh to the south. Flipping between the presets on my Walkman (Sony manufactures a clear-cased model specifically for institutions), I catch the tail end of a weather forecast. Allen Archer says to expect high humidity next week with temperatures in the upper 90’s.

I round the track for the second lap and catch a whiff of booze. I was reading a book out here last week when two Mexicans came and sat beside me in the grass. One of them pretended to tie his shoe while the other unearthed a cereal bag from the ground beside my foot. Its contents smelled of bread and rotting fruit. He added water to the bag from a plastic cup, sloshed the contents around, and stuck a finger in for a taste. “Muy buenito,” he said.

I walk past the spot where the wine was buried and see a spatter of vomit in the grass, orange and fan-shaped, drying in the sun. It looks like a pumpkin threw up.

I walk by, relieved to be upwind of the vomit, and turn away from the setting sun to watch a basketball game, two guys, one-on-one. The mulatto with cornrows goes by Gypsy. He’s hunched forward, dribbling the ball three feet from the ground. He fakes a move to the right, then to the lift, then slides back to the right beneath his opponents outstretched hands to deliver a successful hook shot. Roger, my old celly, sits on the sidelines admiring. He and Gypsy are fucking.

When I arrived here, guys called me D Town and Big D because I came from Dallas. Nobody goes by first names. Most people, even those who are close, don’t even know on another’s real names. Everyone has a nickname–Gypsy, South, Carolina, Detroit, Black, Red, Shorty, Slim, A Train, Pac Man, Juvenile, Chili Mac . . . . One guy here goes by KY. Only recently did I realize that he was from Kentucky and not named after the personal lubricant.

Third lap. A man jogging past me on my left gets too close and I have to move over to the grass to let him by. I feel like such a sucker when this happens. It feels as though I’ve failed a game of chicken I didn’t know I was playing. The jogger is white, and his arms swing heavily from side to side like wet towels. On his back, tattooed across his shoulder blades is the word REDNECK.

White guys have no asses.

I punch the first preset button on my radio–the local NPR station–and Garrison Keillor announces it’s been another quiet week in Lake Wobegone. Lyle hated whenever I’d listen to Prairie Home Companion in the car. “How can you stand that man’s voice?” he’d ask. “He whistles his s’s. He sounds like Gopher on Winnie the Pooh.” For the rest of the day, I’d drive Lyle crazy by whistling my s’s: I once asked him if for lunch he wanted to stop at the store for some sub sandwiches, and he almost cried.

Keillor is saying that life is lived forward but understood backwards.

There’s a soccer match going on in the south field, all Hispanics, Unlike the blacks and their football, the Hispanics will play soccer no matter how hot or wet the weather. It began raining one afternoon and I watched the blacks–who had only just finished drawing the chalk lines on the field–pack up everything and go back inside. The Hispanics were unphased and continued playing in the Mississippi mud.

Mexicans have asses. Cubans, too. Beautiful brown, no need for a belt. The handball courts are almost empty except for a few brown skins. They lose a ball and it rolls past me, across the track, and bounces off the razor wire. I stoop to pick it up. I hate retrieving balls because I know that every opportunity I have to throw a ball is an opportunity to embarrass myself. The browns thank me in advance–“Gracias.”–and the one closest to me reaches up for the catch. Somewhere from the back of my mind, a tip once offered to me at some point in childhood surfaces: don’t focus on the throw; focus on where you want the ball to go. My aim is a bit high, but the ball is easily caught. The recipient nods again in gratitude. He is, I notice now, a student in one of the Spanish GED classes. I often see him in the library. This evening, he is shirtless and beautiful brown with broad shoulders and a thick waist. His belly rises over the elastic band of his boxers like warm dough. Muy buenito. I’d give up good time to have him sit on my face and give me taste.

I’ve begun a fourth lap now. Each lap around the track is a half mile long. The sun in the west casts a shadow of my profile to the east which ripples over the trenches officers dug earlier in the month when they were scouring for weapons. My shadow’s shoulders are slumped forward, the back curved. I’ve begun noticing things about my body–teeth, hairline, stomach fat–things that didn’t seem to exist when I was twenty-one. I read in Men’s Journal that the body stops growing and starts dying at about twenty-five. Cells begin to age; organs lose their efficiency. I turned twenty-six last month. It occurs to me that I’m dying.

I flip from Prairie Home back to 98.7, the mix station out of Jackson–Allen Archer can kiss my sweaty ass; God it’s hot–where Jewel is singing “You Were Meant for Me,” not the original version they use to play on the radio when I was younger and she was still writing songs about her friends committing suicide, but a newer, more upbeat recording with a slightly faster tempo. I like the sadder version better. “Put on my pjs and hop into bed. I’m half alive but I feel mostly dead.”

The soccer game is wrapping up now. It’s fifteen till seven, and they’ll call the move soon. One of the Christians told me that a lot of these Mexicans get marbles in prison. “A marble,” he whispered, “is a small charm carved out of a domino that you have inserted beneath the skin of your penis.” The charm can be carved into any shape–heart, diamond, Playboy bunny. “They say when you get out of prison and tell a hooker you got a marble, she’ll lay you for free.”

I wonder if the Mexican playing handball has a marble. Too bad I don’t have a clit. I suggested to the Christian that he get one in the shape of a Jesus fish, but he wasn’t amused.

Sixth and final lap. Seven till. I flip back to Keillor and he’s telling a story about a guy who gets into a jet skiing accident and develops a phobia of water sports which drives him to alcoholism and causes his to lose his wife and house and eventually his job after dancing drunk in the pulpit at church (he was a pastor) which ultimately forced him to seek help for his phobia from a psychiatrist who recommended he overcome his fear of jet skiing by getting back in the water behind the tug of a boat which, when he finally gave into the psychiatrist’s advice, let him to collide with another jet skier who just happened to be his ex-wife. And wouldn’t now, asks Keillor, be a good time for a slice of rhubarb pie? Yes, nothing gets rid of the taste of shame and humiliation quite like the taste of Be-Bop-A-Re-Bop Rhubarb Pie.

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