In the final month of the new year the frosting on the cake got a little thicker, the fries a little crisper, the portions more generous. The mustard, usually doled out by the teaspoon, gained its very own spot on the cold bar, right next to the macaroni salad, allowing us to grab as much as we liked for our hamburgers.
When the Suits come for their annual inspection, food improves, shower stalls get fixed, walls get patched and repainted, light bulbs get replaced, all to give the impression that this is how it always is. For our part we eat our fill of cake and mustard and stay out of the way. That is the deal.
Most insulting is when the counselor breezes through the dorm ahead of the Suits spraying apple-cinnamon Glade to mask our farts, sweat, and animal-sleep. She smiles as she does this, embarrassed. The Suits arrive soon after looking like an ad for the Men’s Warehouse and smelling of Burberry. We get quiet; the teacher has stepped back inside the classroom. “Good morning, gentleman.” They peck their way through the rows of towering bunk beds, hands clasped behind their backs, looking up, looking down. And before the Glade has settled to the floor they are gone. What did they see? What impressions did they draw from five minutes? Presumably they approved: the walls were standing, the roof hadn’t caved in. All’s well. Send in some more. And indeed another bus does come bearing more souls, three days before Christmas.
It was rumored we’d see fireworks this New Year’s Eve. The guys who were here last year said there’d been a display on the eastern outskirts of town. Joe scanned the horizon from the barred window above his bed but said he saw nothing out there except the winking lights of grain silos, water towers and of the lone wind turbine out in front of the prison that seems never to spin. I think they were pulling our legs about the fireworks.
Last year in Mississippi I allowed myself to be wrangled into Steve’s room for a 2013 farewell. He had just finished a quart of hooch and was lit up like the ball in Times Square. Originally from Maine, Steve was one of a few Yankees on a compound overrun with southern boys, which might explain why he took a liking to me, as I myself am a Yankee, Brooklyn-bred. In the free world he’d been a tattoo artist, a trade he continued to pursue in prison. His room smelled perpetually of burning hemorrhoid cream, the soot of which he’d mix with his ink to make it darker. His most distinctive tattoo was one of a stick figure pushing a lawn mower across his balding pate.
“You smoke cigarettes out there in the world?” Steve pulled a fold of paper smaller than a postage stamp from his pocket. Some state joints still sell tobacco, but not the feds. In federal prison, one obtains tobacco as he does any contraband—an outside visitor, a package tossed over the fence, or, common enough, through a rogue cop. One chaplain in Mississippi was discovered selling cigarettes and dope to inmates in exchange for sex. Twice I witnessed an officer spitting snuff in the grass outside the commissary, this despite tobacco being prohibited on prison grounds. Inmates have been known to collect these deposits along with discarded spit cups dug from the trash. They dry the tobacco and sell it to willing customers for good money. A spit-arette, they call it.
Steve emptied the brown shavings, hardly a thimble’s worth, onto a scrap of toilet paper wrapper and, with a few deft movements of his fingers, rolled himself a tidy little joint thin as a lollipop stick. He lit it with a double A battery and took a long, intense drag.
“Want a hit?” He held the cigarette out and I noted the blood on his knuckles. His locker had jammed earlier, inciting a drunken riot of punches and two or three kicks. Now open, the locker door was so badly dented that it refused to close at all, though Steve seemed not to notice, or care.
“I’m good,” I said, declining the cigarette.
Even sober Steve had a tendency to tell the same stories. I’d heard of many of his capers but listened politely as he regaled again the time he and his old lady ripped off a Sam’s Club. The clerk manning the exit had forgotten to validate their receipt. So he and his wife went back inside, filled a flatbed with all the same purchases—which included a desktop computer and printer—and walked out of the store, flashing the same receipt. Had the clerk not marked it then they might have gone back through a third time.
The radio that evening, in sympathy to those left stranded on New Year’s Eve, had been playing a mix of better times and foregone love. By chance, it was during “Original Sin” that Steve reached over and began to stroke my arm.
“You’re growing a beard,” he observed.
“Just thought I’d try something different. I’ll probably shave it off soon. It’s starting to get itchy.”
“I like it. It suits you. Very becoming.” He cocked his head and smiled, eyes bleary from the booze. “You’re a hairy guy, aren’t you?”
“I hate it. I’m losing hair where I want hair and growing hair where there shouldn’t be any. Hey, listen. Have you eaten? I still got a bagel in my Christmas bag. I was gonna make myself a pizza. We could split it.”
He took another drag with his free hand. “Nah,” he said, exhaling. The smoke unspooled from his nose like a blue spirit and settled in his mustache. “You don’t mind my touching you, do you?”
The cell was blotted with haze.
“No,” I lied. He was drunk and capable of violence; I thought it best to keep cautiously amenable.
“You’re a good kid,” he said. “I look out for you. You know that, don’t you?” His rough thumb, the nail stained black with ink, crept its way around to the tender white of my underarm, just tickling my pit hairs. “You know I look out for you?”
“No you don’t.” He pitched the dying ember in the toilet. “I know you’re messing with that black guy, what’s his name—Elijah?”
I nodded again. No use denying it.
“The white guys are talking about it. But I set them straight. I tell them you’re a good kid. ‘He’s a good kid,’ I say. ‘Just rumors,’ I tell them. I look out for you, you understand?”
Outside in the day room the Mexicans were yipping and whistling at one of their telenovellas. Some Latin beauty had just been kissed or ravaged, or slapped by a jealous rival.
“Fuck ’em.” He pulled his hand away suddenly, likely out of the sobering fear that someone walking by might peek in and witness his caresses. “Bunch of rednecks. I’d fight any one of them. All of them. Fuck. I don’t care. I don’t mind if you play with Elijah. I don’t mind if you play with a black dude.”
Steve’s eyes focused momentarily. “I don’t care if you play with me,” he said.
Later I was awakened at midnight by the thunder of a hundred men beating on their cell doors. The ball had dropped. Their furor and fury reverberated through the walls and floor, through steel and stone, reaching a frequency that countered my trembling heart and resonated with my fear.