When the next riot breaks out I know where I’ll hide. If I’m in the dormitory, I will crawl beneath my bunk. The corner walls should box me in nicely. If I’m on the rec yard, I will climb a tree. I’ve never climbed a tree, but I could do so in a pinch if properly motivated. If when the next riot breaks out I’m realigning a wind turbine shaft, I will duck inside the soldering classroom across the hall. The room has sat vacant since the instructor retired last year. The dusty floor is littered with cardboard, and husks of paint hang from the water-damaged ceiling. There’s an empty cabinet in there that is just my size.
Guys still talk about the riot that happened here years ago, which erupted after a man jumped ahead in line at the showers. Of course riots are never caused by a single event. They follow a succession of grievances, occur at the height of tensions, and there are always tensions between the blacks and Hispanics. I don’t know why. I once asked a black inmate why blacks kill blacks. He explained hostility within his race dates back to slavery and the resentment between the “House” and “Field Niggers.” The domestic help thought the field hands inferior; the field hands thought the domestic help uppity. “As soon as a black man gets a dollar, there’s another black man who wants to take it away.” I wonder if tension between the blacks and Hispanics isn’t of the same desperation: two disparaged classes of people trying to claw atop the other.
Whatever the reason, the tension is there and it only takes a disagreement over a shower stall to trigger a full-scale war. So when word got around last week that the blacks and Mexicans were beefing over a TV, the majority opinion was that we were due for another riot. The compound was locked down for a day while staff investigated. Excited by the possibility of bloodshed and bored by our afternoon confinement, stories of the previous riot were unearthed and retold with a kind of morbid glee. Strangely what frightened me most in these retellings wasn’t the violence but the widespread vandalism. Lockers were kicked in. Clothes were stolen. Music players were swept into a pile and flushed down the toilet. Photo albums were defaced. Pictures of men’s wives and children disappeared.
“When I found out about the pictures, it made me sick,” Jack said. Jack is my neighbor six bunks over. He was here during the last riot, though his locker and photos were spared. “I told my old lady to stop sending them. If someone got a hold of her’s or my son’s pictures, it would kill me.”
That afternoon of the investigation I pulled my own photo album from the bottom of my locker. I don’t look at it often. On the first page is a picture of the men in our family spanning three generations, taken years ago when my grandfather still possessed his mind, my father his two sons, my brother and I our freedom. My father smiles into the middle distance, blithely unaware.
“Are you in the world?” I turned to see Joe sitting on the bunk behind me sipping a Coke.
“Just visiting.” I flipped to the next page: a photo of my niece and nephews dressed in Easter pastels. The oldest, four at the time, holds his toddling sister in his lap. The middle boy holds a red fishing pole. All three look like my brother. Jack didn’t offer to tell me what happened to the pictures of children, and I didn’t ask. I am a coward.
Despite the fear of having his pictures stolen, Jack keeps a single photo of his sixteen-year-old son and the boy’s mother tucked inside his Bible. Jack, a professed lover of whores and meth, who dons a swastika tattoo on his shoulder, reads his Bible every night before bed. Jack is like that. He surprises you. One night after lights out I returned from the bathroom to find him sitting in the dark, a heavy gilded volume open in his lap. He looked at me. Light? I mouthed. He flicked on a book lamp which, until then, I hadn’t noticed had been secured to the top of the Bible. Having answered my question he flicked the light off. Whether he was reading or in his own world I wasn’t sure.
It is possible, for those with top bunks, to sit up in bed and see through the barred windows on the other side of the room the city of Big Spring at the bottom of the hill. Jack told me he can see the Holiday Inn where families of the incarcerated stay during their visits, though his own family has never stayed there, has yet to visit him. The prison single-handedly keeps that hotel in business. From my own bunk, however, the only landmark I can make out with any certainty among the crouching buildings and industrial debris is the city’s water tower, a hulking white monster like something out of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds.
One evening Jack had me follow him to the highest point on the compound. We climbed a dirt hill past signs warning us we were Out of Bounds. When we reached the top he told me to turn around. The sun was setting then, and the world was the inside of an heirloom copper pot, all teal and pink and bronze.
“I come here sometimes,” Jack said. Jack is like that. I asked him what he thought of the rumors that we were headed for another riot.
“These Mexicans,” he said, “they think they run the prison.”
The Mexicans congregated around Garza’s bunk the night of the lock down. Bully, who has a bulldog tattooed on his scalp, brought his amp. Joe nodded his head to the music, old-school hip-hop that he said reminded him of the world. It was Bully who mentioned riots. He said at another prison he watched a man get his head stomped flat. Should anyone have believed he was exaggerating, he sandwiched his hands together, one pressed on top of the other: “Flat.”
Six bunks to my left Jack stared up at his bed number painted on the ceiling. Across the room and out the window the world was dark. The red eye of the water tower terrorized the people. Flat. I didn’t know it was possible to level a skull with one’s boot. Sometimes it’s my naivety more than anything that frightens me.
“You in the world again?” Joe caught me staring out the window. He smiled, kept nodding his head to the beat.