Grits

The commissary line is always longest on Monday mornings. An empty locker makes an inmate anxious, and he will queue up at 7:30, skipping breakfast, to replenish the sodas and candies and chicharrones he scoffed over the weekend. The line this morning is especially long–it extends around the north-eastern perimeter of the compound, past safety, past the prison factory, and ends at the chapel door–because the commissary was closed last week for inventory and the freezers, which broke three months ago, have finally been replaced and stocked with ice cream.

It struck me odd when I came to prison and saw the inmates eating ice cream, a treat I associate with childhood and tinkling trucks. Walking to breakfast, I pass men sauntering back to their units carrying two, three, four pints of Blue Bell in their mesh laundry bags. One man with cornrows is licking an ice cream cone.

“We go all summer without ice cream,” he quips, “and they bring the shit back first day of fall.”

At breakfast there is the usual debate over the proper way to season grits. The Northerner’s at the Christian Table prefer sugar while those brought up south of the Mason Dixon Line favor salt. The one exception is Brother Marcus from Georgia who like his grits sweet. The Southerner’s call him a Yankee, and Brother Jarvis, who is from Buffalo defends Brother Marcus declaring salted grits an abomination.

Someone mentions Cream of Wheat.

“Isn’t that the same as Farina?”

“Farina is made from corn.”

“No, no. They’re both made from wheat. Farina is just a brand name.”

“Cream of Wheat is a brand, too. It’s the one in the red box with the old white guy on the front.”

“I thought that was Quaker Oats.”

The man beside me asks for my input, and I tell him my mother is Italian. We eat polenta.

At the far end of the table sits Paul, the new guy, folding a pat of margarine into his grits. His eyes are sunken, his face barbaric, all chin and jaw. He stoops over his food tray with the posture of a prawn. Were my opinions of him always so harsh? Admittedly, no. It was only after learning of his charge–child molestation–that I assigned his otherwise benign attributes my own sinister meanings: his deep-set eyes turned mischievous, his strong jawline vulgar, his slouch predatorial. Funny how a bit of information can influence the minds eye.

Curiously, the whites haven’t run him off the compound or attacked him as they did Old Man Landry. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because the girl was sixteen and he eighteen, therefore making consent somewhat more negotiable. That’s not to say that the whites have granted him complete amnesty. They’ve banished him from eating at their tables and living with their people, which is why he eats and lives amongst the Christians, who accept him, however begrudgingly, because of doctrine. And Paul, whether out of sincerity or a sense of obligation, behaves accordingly: he attends church, talks Bible with the brothers, and even blesses his food before each meal. Seeing him manage prison makes me wonder if I haven’t gone about things all wrong. Perhaps I should have been upfront about my own charge. I could have spared myself all the prayer circles and Bible studies and church services and pretenses and lies. Perhaps Paul and I could have become cellmates, friends even.

At the end of the table, Paul crumbles a muffin into his grits and tears a packet of sweetener over the top. They don’t give us real sugar. They pass out some institution-only brand not sold to the public. The distributor’s logo is and upturned fork whose tines mimic prison bars.

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