Locks, Canes, and Vaseline

There was a rash of fights this Thanksgiving. The first occurred on Wednesday between two whites, a Floridian and a Texas. The Floridian refused to pay a thirty-dollar debt, so, as is the customary procedure in prison, the Texas went to the shot caller for the Floridians and was granted permission to settle the dispute with impunity. That evening, while the unit officer was away from his post, the two men converged in front of the telephones on the top tier, the Floridian wielding a Masterlock, the Texan brandishing what appeared to be a whip. Or was it? I turned to South who was standing behind me. “What is that?”

He looked over my shoulder with mild interest. “A cane,” he replied.

An audience materialized within seconds, their ears acutely attuned to the sounds of a scuffle. Inmates lined the tier and amassed on the ground below in a respectful silence like the spectators at a chess or golf tournament, eager for the checkmate, the winning putt.

“Those canes hurt,” South said, and I wondered if he was speaking subjectively or from experience.

Another fight occurred on Thanksgiving evening while I was calling home. I didn’t see it, but I recognized the familiar sounds–the clatter of an overturned chair, the shuffle of boots, the hush of the crowd.

The more serious of the brawls happened yesterday, serious because it involved two races and therefore held the potential for a race riot. The Sureños ganged up on a black and stabbed him in the throat after he beat up one of their own. So much for November cooling the blood. The entire block was evacuated and made to file in the rain through a series of checkpoints in where inmates were patted down until finally being spit out at the rec yard. Here we waited for two hours while officers shook down the units. Most stayed indoors and watched TV or played pool. A few of us, myself included, walked the track despite the rain. Two men played handball until the court became too slippery and the rain too heavy, and the lot of us was forced to take shelter beneath the pavilion, all of us except the Floridian who stood in the pouring rain beneath a lamp post with the collar of his jacket turned up to hide the bruises.

This morning there was rumor that the Sureños were still unhappy. It was said there would be another fight, after lunch, on the rec yard; they would win back their respect. Rod warned me to stay indoors, so I showered early and visited South.

“What are you up to?” I sat down in the chair opposite his bunk. The lights were off, the room dark. He laid in bed propped up against a pillow, a shadow with eyes, listening to his headphones, the ones with the crochet earpieces I teasingly refer to as his panda ears.

“Just about to crack open this GED book and study a bit of language arts.” He pulled of the earphones and hung them around his neck. “Wanna stay and help?”

“Have you forgotten what an adjective is already?” Had he been light skinned, I might have seen him blush at the recollection of our first study session.

“Shit,” he said. “Maybe you need to refresh me. Where’s your celly?”

“He’s in our room teaching Fox how to draw portraits. I thought I’d give him some space.”

“How come you don’t draw?”

“Actually, I do. Or did. Not so much drawing as painting. I took art throughout high school and college. But it’s an expensive hobby, all those paints and brushes and so on.”

“Shit, you got the money.”

Our conversations somehow always whittle down to the economic differences between whites and blacks. During these discussions, my impulse is to over exaggerate the humbleness of my upbringing and craft similarities between us where none exist. I wish he were less guarded around me. I wish I could make him smile the way he does when he’s around his own people.

“I hate when you do that. I hate when you paint me the stereotypical white boy. You think we all live in gated communities and go yachting on weekends and wear chinos and Hush Puppies–”

“Without socks,” he added. “Did your brother and his wife have the baby?”

“Yes. She had a Cesarean this morning. I haven’t called yet.”

“What did they name it?”

“I don’t know. My sister-in-law has all these white trash names picked out like London and Brooklyn. Poor kid. She’s going to grow up to become a stripper. You have a daughter, don’t you? What’s her name?”

“I have two daughters. I didn’t name them.”

Typical black male, I thought, still perturbed over the socks comment.

“The youngest is eleven. Her name is Sade.”

“Like the singer?”

“Yeah, but it has an apostrophe in it: s-apostrophe-a-d-e.”

“I don’t get it. What’s the apostrophe for?”

South stared at the underside of the bunk above him, searching. “That’s a good question. I don’t know. I never thought to ask.”

“And you other daughter. What’s her name?”

“Acara.”

“Spell it.”

“A-apostrophe-c-a-r-a.”

“You’re kidding. Were these children named by the same woman?”

“No, they have different mothers.”

I laughed. “Get the fuck out.”

The door opened suddenly and South’s cellmate walked in, a compact man, darker than South, with a square head and Gucci-framed glasses. He opened his locker and began to rummage. “That Tony Romo ain’t shit. He a backup quarterback at best. Nobody wants him but Jerry Jones.” He bit off the end of a packet of Hawaiian Punch and emptied the powder into his thermos. The water exploded electric blue. “You play sports?”

“No,” I said and added, as if owing an explanation, “I was never very competitive as a child.”

He wasn’t sure what to make of that and left without a word. I moved to the door. From the window, I watched him descend the stairs to join the rest of the blacks fanned out around the sports TV. Sitting along the outer fringe, looking vulnerable and rather comical, sat three white guys. I pulled my shorts down.

The air behind me moved, and he was there, crouching, tongue groping. I grabbed him hard by the muzzle and guided his mouth. Eat. Eat. He pulled back. “You’re rough,” he said.

“Yes.” It was true.

He opened his locker and retrieved from the mass of squeeze bottles and greasy spoons a small container of Vaseline. “I can take it.”

“You don’t have to,” I said.

He ran a finger along the inner lip of the jar and slipped his hand down the back of his shorts. I checked the window again–the tier was empty–and when I turned around, he was pitched over the sink. waiting.

It was easier than with the white men I’ve been with. There was no awkward fumbling or false starts. It occurred to me that blacks are an entirely different animal, their bodies less self-conscious, more receptive. I pressed my cheek against the slope of his back. His T-shirt, the brown institutional kind, was soft and worn from having passed through the hands of so many inmates and so many wash cycles. His breathing hitched, and I felt that familiar guilt of not wanting to hurt but not wanting to stop. Frustrating. What would they say if they caught us? A white man fucking a black man. How contrary to the usual power roles. Would it anger the blacks? Would the whites see it as a victory? The idea emboldened me, and I pushed on, edging closer, until South’s palm came to press against my shoulder, and, reluctantly, I withdrew.

“You’re bleeding,” I said. He passed me a roll of toilet paper. “Let me suck it.”

Stricken with fear, I tossed the evidence in the toilet. “No,” I said. “It’s passed.”

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