I suspect prison, with its inherent isolation and controlled access, would be an ideal environment in which to study the spread of infectious diseases, such as the flu, which has hit Mississippi early this year. According to Rod, our resident epidemiologist, the bug was likely brought in from the outside world by, to use his parlage, a dick-eating cop. The dick eater then passed it to a Mexican in Foxtrot-Three who sold a book of stamps to a Puerto Rican in Echo-Two who played dominoes with a Muslim in Delta-Four who shared a burrito with a kitchen worker, who thus introduced the bug into the chow hall where it sat cultivating on a serving spoon at the salad bar. Within days, our population was decimated.
Everyone is sick. The coughing and sneezing and discharging of phlegm echo in every block, in every unit, in every cell. And at night the labored snoring of our neighbors thrums through the air shafts between the walls. Rod has been too sick to paint. Oscar and his celly have quarantined themselves in their room and taken to eating ibuprofens for breakfast. And Elijah and I have forgone all kissing so as to spare me his own particular strain, which we suspect may be strep.
In our sniffling, aching states, we’ve been forced to expend our time indoors. We play chess, cards, dominoes, and scrabble. Connect Four enjoyed a brief revival in popularity before we realized it was only tic-tac-toe. A few men in Foxtrot have devised their own Monopoly board game dubbed ‘Hood Monopoly, in which one can amass a conglomerate of crack houses on Martin Luther King Boulevard. For many participants, it’s a game of life imitating art. Or is that art imitating life? A life of easy money, of dodging police, of passing in and out of jail, a life of a few small gains but of mostly staggering losses, a life spent traveling in circles.
One Chance card informs the player that he’s contracted an STD and must pay $1,000 in medical expenses.
Our prayer circle has been hit especially hard by the bug. As Christians we believe that all illness and disease are manifestations of Satan, and only through the belief and authority of Jesus Christ can the demon be exorcised and our ailments cured. Therefore the common cold is not a physiological test but a spiritual one which requires firm faith and intense prayer. But this theology theory has not played out. Despite our combined prayers and rebukes, the cold persists, and every night another of our fellow brethren is felled.
It began with Brother Warren and a small headache. Then his celly Brother Marcus contracted a cough, followed by Brother Jacob who came to the circle one night wearing sweats, skull cap, and a towel around his neck. The only man who has so far escaped contamination has been Brother Phillip, who is somewhat of a microphobe and always carries with him a pair of gloves for operating the phones and computers.
None of the brothers will admit he is sick. To admit illness is to claim illness, and as Christians we are wary of speaking such things into existence. And so we come together in a circle night after night, stubbornly singing hymns in off-tune wheezes, trying our best to stifle our coughs and fool ourselves into remission. After one particularly bloody bout of hacking, I asked Brother Jacob if he was okay. He cinched his towel tight around his neck and smiled stoically. “By the grace of God, I’m doing just fine.”
The one man who seems to be struggling the most with this delusion is Warren, who said nothing initially of his illness but instead maintained an air of detachment throughout the evening worship. Concerned, I found him in his room after the service and asked if he was all right. He had just finished brushing his teeth and was standing beneath the sink’s overhead light, hazel eyes shining. In his late thirties, the whiskers below his mouth are just beginning to turn gray. I would have gladly risked catching his cold for a taste.
“I’m fine, thank you,” he said somewhat embarrassed. “Just a little headache.”
Warren went to bed early the next night, skipping the prayer circle entirely, a first for him. I suppose I should be pleased to see him sick. Earlier in the year when I was suffering from a cold, Brother Jacob laid his heavily tattooed hands upon my shoulders and rebuked my illness in the name of Jesus Christ. At breakfast the next morning, Warren asked if I was feeling better. With an edge of sourness I told him I was not. He laughed and said I lacked faith. Now that his own faith is being tested and he has thus far failed to be delivered from sickness, I should feel vindicated. Rare is it for me to pass up the opportunity to champion my cynicism and disbelief. Strangely though, I feel no such inclination. I don’t want to see Warren sick. I don’t want to take away his God. I’d buy him cough drops had the commissary not run out.
Years ago when Jamie and I were together, he confided in me the stresses typical of every college student. He lamented his decision to study French and History. He wondered how he’d be able to pay his student loans, if he’d be able to find a job. He worried that the path he’d chosen–whichever path he’d settled on for that week–was the wrong one. He needed validation more than anything, and wished it most to come from his father. But his father died when he was only a small boy.
Sensing the need to say something, I told Jamie that his father, wherever he was, would be proud of the man his son was becoming. He pulled away wiping his eyes. “How can you say that?” he asked. “You don’t believe in God.”
True. But for his sake, I was willing to believe.