A steel cage divides the room. His is the side with no exit. My responsibility is to watch him, to make sure he doesn’t kill himself with that spoon he eats his roast pork supper with. I note in the log book that he is indeed eating his supper, evidence he’s abandoned his hunger strike.
The nurse in the powder-blue scrubs asked me how long I’ve been a suicide watch companion and I told her three years, though this inflates my experience somewhat. I’ve only served on two watches. One was for a chronic masturbator who stared at me from beneath his smock and pulled his dick out every time the nurse came by to dispense his meds. The other man paced for much of my four-hour shift, stopping only once to knock on the partition and ask how much I was getting paid to watch him. I told him four dollars, and he laughed. He said that inmate companions at his last prison got paid ten.
Neither inmate tried anything. Both watches were uneventful, which is preferable when you’re trying to prevent someone from drowning himself in the toilet, which happens of course. In training they recount the many gruesomely clever ways inmates have killed themselves in the past, from hanging themselves from the overhead light to swallowing thick wads of pulpy toilet paper. One man removed a metal slat from the watch room’s air vent and used it to slash his wrists. But drowning in a toilet is the worst, I think. There isn’t much water in those prison commodes. You’d have to really get your head down in there good and deep. And that stainless steel is cold.
Right now it isn’t the toilet that’s making me nervous but the spoon, one of those beige plastic kinds they pass out in the chow hall with the deep bowl that doesn’t quite form to the mouth, so that you have to turn it upside down and use your tongue to get it clean. Admittedly he seems more intent on eating than he does on killing himself, and justly so. According to the log book this is the first meal in two days that he hasn’t refused. He sits on the edge of the plastic tamper-proof mattress, shoveling spoonfuls of pork and slick yellow onions into his mouth. He’s an older man, mid-fifties. His face is pleasantly bland. The smock he wears reveals a broad chest of graying hairs, fat shapeless arms. His exposed knees look small and vulnerable, a young boy’s knees. He makes quick work of his meal, eating everything including the two slices of wheat bread, and sets the empty tray, along with the potentially deadly spoon, on the floor beside the cage door.
A corrections officer comes to sign the log book and collect the tray. The man says he needs toilet paper. The CO begins unraveling a few squares, and the man’s face sours. He says he needs to shit. He promises not to kill himself with the roll.
If he’s embarrassed, if he feels at all violated having to shit in the presence of other men, he doesn’t let on. There is, I suppose, a certain dignity in the factual way he swabs the seat first, the way he lifts the back of his smock as though he were a concert pianist flicking aside his coattails before settling on the bench. If anything it is I who am ashamed, my youth offended. I watch him, because I have to, and thus observe my future self: the doughy arms, the dark downturned nipples, the little boy knees and gray toes. Strange how not just the pate but the entire male body balds—once a peach, now a nectarine, slick and prone to bruising. I’d sooner kill myself than shit in front of an audience.
When it’s over, mercifully over, he passes the roll back to the CO and the cage is again locked. The officer leaves. I note in the log book: “Defecated.”
For the next hour the man’s attempts at sleep are stymied by the fluorescents, which are kept at surgical-room brightness twenty-four-seven. He flops beneath the stiff blanket, flings one arm over his face. At one point he shimmies out of his smock and folds it over his eyes. It doesn’t help. Sleeplessness finally prompts him to speak.
“I’m sorry to bore you,” he says, eyes covered, to the ceiling.
“I’m sorry I have to watch you . . . ” take a shit is what I want to say but shouldn’t presume humor. In training we’re encouraged to talk to our fellow inmate, ask him unimposing questions, walk him through his problems and possible solutions (apart from ending his life), and to nod every now and then and say things like “I see” and “Wow, that must be really frustrating.” This is called “active listening.”
“What dorm are you in?” the man asks.
“I live in Sunset. I couldn’t tell if I recognized you. They took my glasses.”
“Wow, that must be really frustrating.” I click my pen nervously. “Are you from around here, Epson?”
“My name is Epstein.”
I check the log book. “It seems they’ve written it down wrong.”
“Yeah, the nurse keeps calling me Epson and Eppins. I told her it’s Epstein—Epstein. It’s Jewish. My family lives in Tampa, but I’m originally from New York.”
“What a coincidence,” I say a little too loudly. “I grew up in Brooklyn. Sheepshead Bay. My mother’s Italian.”
“We lived in the Bronx. We were surrounded by Italians. Someone was always bringing over a coffee cake or cannoli. I don’t know why anyone bothered having couches or living rooms when they never left the kitchen.”
It’s true. I can’t recall ever sitting in my grandmother’s living room.
“Do you have much time left, Epstein?”
“About two years,” he says readjusting the smock over his eyes.
He huffs. “I’ll be fifty-eight when I get out of prison. I’ll be old and unemployable. There aren’t many companies hiring fifty-eight-year-old ex-felons. Too afraid we might die, retire, or otherwise rob the place.”
“Ageism,” I say unhelpfully.
“No, I mean, we live in a very ageist society, don’t we? Utility is measured in youth. My father is in his seventies and has an awful time changing jobs. The workforce demands fresh blood, fresh energy, fresh ideas.” I’m terrible at this. I have no good news for this man. To lie to him would be to lie to myself. “So what kind of work did you do out there?”
“I sold construction equipment. Made good money, too. I had it all going for me,” he says replaying it beneath the smock. “I had a beautiful wife, a beautiful daughter, a beautiful home on a cul-de-sac. A pool. Granite countertops and stainless steel appliances in the kitchen.” He laughs. “We even had a German shepherd.”
“Very American dream. I bet you had a grill, too.”
He waggles his bare feet. “It was huge—massive—propane with six burners.”
“Six! And you had the rotisserie attachment, I’m sure.”
“And a smoker,” he says. “We threw these great block parties. We’d close off the cul-de-sac with tables, and every neighbor brought a dish. I did all the grilling. The kids had a blast running around in the street.” He sobers a bit at the mention of kids.
“Did you appreciate it at the time?”
“No,” he says. “Not at the time.”
At quarter to nine the CO returns to sign the log book and to make sure I haven’t fallen asleep and that my subject isn’t dead. We snuff our conversation like two boys at a sleepover when the grownups knock.
Are you still married, Epstein?” I ask after the CO leaves.
“On paper, anyway.” He pulls the smock off his face, clasps his hands behind his head and continues to stare at the ceiling. “First name’s Paul, by-the-way.”
“Paul, you said you have a daughter?”
“She’s twelve. A competitive dancer. She’s been dancing since she was four.” She’s dancing now, on the ceiling, pirouetting in silver leggings, butterfly combs in her hair, a single runaway strand kissing her strawberry-glossed lips. “I haven’t seen her in four years, since I’ve been locked up. She and my wife were supposed to visit me back when I was in Oakdale. Then my transfer came up. Instead of sending me closer to home they sent me here to Texas—500 miles farther from my family. I told Dr. Dearborn, ‘That’s it! I give up. I’m not eating. I’ll just starve and wither away.'”
Spoken like a true Jew.
“The captain said if I don’t eat soon he’d hook me up to feeding tubes and write me a shot. Can you believe that? I want to end my life and he’s threatening to take away my commissary privileges, so I won’t be able to spend $4.40 on a six-pack of Coke. Please.”
“You’re a liability to him. That’s what this is for,” I say holding up the log book.
“Are you writing this down?”
“Just the generals. How many burners did you say that grill had again? Six?”
“Yeah. And make sure you put down that I said the captain is a schmuck.” He thinks for a moment. “Dr. Dearborn—she’s nice. She seems to genuinely care. But that Dr. Blatt I can’t stand. She went rifling through my locker and was positively gleeful when she found my pros-and-cons list, like she’d caught me red-handed. She thought she’d found a suicide note.”
Paul sighs. “Back in Oakdale, when I was depressed, the psychologist had me make a list of pros and cons.”
“Of killing yourself?”
“No, no. It was a list of positives and negatives, the good and the bad of life in general. On one side I wrote my wife and daughter, and on the other I listed my cons.” He demonstrates the length of these grievances by drawing a vertical line through the air from the apex of his reach to his blanketed lap. “The point of the exercise was to realize that even though they were outnumbered, my family still outweighed the bad. At least they did.”
Keys jangle from somewhere down the hall. The CO, or maybe the nurse, is making the nightly rounds, patrolling the halls, jiggling door knobs. A radio bleeps a watery transmission: all is secure.
“I had a nice life once,” I say after the keys are gone. “I was newly graduated, had a great job making good money. I had an apartment with a view of the city. I had a grill, too. A little rooftop portable. Charcoal. No burners.”
I drum my pen against the log book, which I’ve ceased writing in. I used to feel my life was on track, everything falling into place like a line of shiny black domino. The physics of success seemed fixed and irrepressible. It took only one misaligned tile to throw the whole chain off. Stop it dead.
“Paul, are you scared of getting out of prison? Some guys say they’re more scared of getting out than they were going in.” I’ve seen men come back. They leave and then a month later I see them on the yard or in the chapel. They come up and say hello, shake my hand, smile shyly. The odds are against us.
“I wouldn’t say I’m scared so much as wary,” Paul says. “I don’t want to be a burden on my family.”
“God knows I’ve burdened mine enough as it is. I’ll be thirty-four when I get out and starting my life from scratch. I’ll be broke, unemployed, and have no place to live. I called an old high school friend the other day and heard some screaming kid in the background. I thought, Jesus, she’s a wife now, a mother. What am I?”
Paul raises his head and looks at me for the first time through the steel lattice. “Thirty-four? You’ll still be a young man. You’ll have plenty of time to rebuild your life. You’ll be fine. Do good in here, and you’ll do good out there.”
“Shouldn’t I be the one encouraging you?”
He smirks and lays his head back down.
“Hey, what were those other things you wrote down on your list—the cons?”
Paul closes his eyes and sighs that fatalistic sigh that reminds me of warm kitchens and coffee cake. “Too many to list, my friend.”
At the end of my shift, at ten o’clock, the CO comes to relieve me. He’ll continue to monitor Paul through the night and into the morning, until the next inmate companion arrives. The nurse says she’ll escort me back to my dorm. As I’m leaving, Paul calls out to me from the cage. “Don’t forget your coat.”
Outside the night is cold and starless. Floodlights hover high above our heads like airships tethered to the earth by black threads. The yard glows orange, the nurse’s scrubs lavender. I get nervous around female officers. I sense their fingers poised over the call button on their radios.
She comments on the wind—it’s really picked up.
We walk through the deserted prison, past the shuttered commissary and mailroom, past the laundry department with the small side window where we exchange our towels and washcloths four days a week. Ahead of us loom two long stretches of buildings, like ships rising from black still waters, their hulls dotted with yellow twinkling portholes. The nurse begins to ask which dorm is mine but stumbles over my name.
“It’s okay,” I reassure her. “A lot of people have trouble with it.”