They came for me at one in the morning. I dressed in the dark, so as not to wake Tom, and stripped the sheets and blanket from my bed. I left my pillow to Tom, for we had decided the night before that mine was the nicer of the two.
“Good luck,” he muttered in his sleep.
I dragged my mattress and linens downstairs passing Cisco’s door on the way. Hours earlier we had been playing gin and eating Pop Tarts. And he and the other Christians had gathered in a circle to pray over me, our hands all entwined.
And then we broke bread. Cisco, for whatever reason, had squirreled away a package of sliced wheat bread from the boxed lunches we’d received six months ago during a lockdown. It became a running gag to see how long the bread would last. Every month he’d pull it from the back of his locker and remark on its surprising softness. Not a sign of mold. Is it even real bread? To celebrate my last night in Mississippi we decided to open the package and share a slice.
“A little dry,” I said, “but not bad.”
Now Cisco’s light was off, his window dark. For him I left behind my book lamp and a copy of Thoreau’s Walden.
Right this way, this way here. Name and number, please. Very good. Step on over there by that door. No, the other door. Finally getting outta here, huh? Name and number, name and number. Step inside. Have a seat.
There were seven of us in the holding cell. One was the man on his way to Fort Worth for a court appearance. He was lying on a bench with a roll of toilet paper tucked beneath his head. We didn’t speak to each other. No one in the room spoke much. Tired. Nervous. My legs wouldn’t stop fidgeting. I recognized the man sitting on the bench across from me as Elijah’s old cellmate, Josh. I wondered if he knew about the extortion. Elijah and I had had a fight. Afterwards, out of revenge, he revealed my true charge to a Texas Aryan Brother. The threats and payments went on for a month until the AB was transferred. Elijah himself disappeared not long after. Josh would later tell me he had transferred to Virginia.
After an hour’s wait in the holding cell, we heard chains dragging across the floor. One Mexican peered through the bars and grinned. “Here comes the jewelery.”
Three at a time, gentlemen. Three at a time. Step on out. Clothes off. Everything off. Toss it here. Keep your socks and underwear. Open your mouths, lift your balls. Turn, squat, cough. Put these on. Shirts tucked in. Step this way. Arms out, hands together. Turn around, feet together. Shirts tucked in, gentlemen. Shirts tucked in. Right this way. Step on in. Have a seat.
The seven of us were placed in an even smaller cell, this one already occupied by eight more men already dressed and adorned with “jewelery.” The jewelery included chains around our ankles and cuffs around our wrists, our hands then secured to chains cinched around our waists preventing us from moving our hands any higher than our navels.
I heard my name as soon as I sat down and turned to see Marzola, the former library clerk, tipping his head to me. Two months ago he had been tossed in the SHU for getting into it with some Mexicans. I nodded back. Apparently they had decided to ship him out of Mississippi for his safety.
Listen for your names, gentlemen. Listen up. Bailey, Barringer, Erickson . . . End of the hall, end of the hall. Lomus, Markus, Marzola . . . Line up, make room, nice and tight. Straight line, gentlemen. I want it straight.
Led and trailed by rifled officers, we shuffled through the prison lobby past grinning portraits of past wardens and the President and Vice President of the United States. The foot-long length of chain allowed for only half strides. Outside the air was warm, the moon shown full. A bus idled in the parking lot, its interior lights glowing romantically, door open. Although technically incorrect, for we were not bound to each other, someone, an inmate, mentioned a “chain gang.” Us others laughed nervously.
All the way back, gentlemen, all the way back. Leave those front seats empty.
It was a Greyhound built around a cage with an open toilet at the rear. I sat near the front, behind Marzola.
“Where are they sending you?” I asked. I made no mention of the fight with the Mexicans.
“They didn’t tell me,” he said. “You?”
“Is that where you wanted to go?”
“No. But it’s a little closer to home.”
It had been over three years since I last saw the outside world. Cisco and I had talked nostalgically of all the sights I’d see on the the bus ride to the Oklahoma City Transfer Center, and I looked forward to my reintroduction to the old familiar. The trip took about ten hours. Through the Greyhound’s barred, tinted windows I saw fast food chains and strip malls, gas stations, and car washes. I saw pharmacies and motor inns, adult video stores, and Indian casinos. From four feet looking down I spied civilians driving to work, pumping gas, and hauling kids to school. I watched them sip their morning coffees and nibble their breakfast burritos and text their husbands and wives and bosses. It was all so disappointing. Freedom is underwhelming when observed from the highway.
Marzola turned to me, his chains rustling in his lap. “Hey, look it,” he said. “Our driver’s checking his Facebook.”