Hard Candy

Jack stops to smell the roses, an actual rose bush blooming outside the chow hall. He figures since the bush blooms once a year he has only to smell the roses ten more times before they let him out of prison. He’d pick a few blossoms and make rose water if there were any Iranians here to sell to. “They love the stuff,” he says. “They flavor their candies with it. Here in America we have flavors like triple-berry bomb blast while those kids in Iran are stuck sucking rose petals. It’s no wonder there’s so much anger in the Middle East.”

Flavor is the resident candy maker here, an old man with dark ebony skin and white hair like confectioners sugar. He makes his taffies not with rose petals but with Hawaiian Punch, combining the drink mix with powdered creamer and a splash of water to form a dough which he rolls into long ropes. He then braids together various flavors, chops them into even segments, and wraps the taffies in plastic squares cut from trash bags.

“Flavor! Flavor!” he shouts. This is his sales call. On the rec yard, in the vocation department, in the dormitories: “Sugar-free! Two for three stamps! Flavor! Flavor!”

Another bus came today bringing with it fifteen fresh faces. One newcomer has been assigned to our dorm. He’s a frumpy, slouchy fellow in his mid-forties with a square apologetic face. He shuffles through the room in blue soft bus shoes, a bed roll tucked beneath his arm. After four years in prison one becomes adept at spotting a sex offender. The newcomer lacks the hardness of weapons possession, the shiftiness of drug use, the sharpness of bank fraud. Illegal entry can be nixed; he’s clearly white. Following behind him the CO asks if he’s received his breathing machine for his sleep apnea. A sex offender, most definitely. The particular silence his presence casts over the room confirms that the other men are on to him too.

The newcomer sets down his bed roll three bunks over from my own and begins making his bed. Now the jokes begin. Someone mentions water pistols and Jolly Ranchers. Willy does a menacing impression of a pedophile—”Anybody want some caaaandies?” Jack wonders aloud if judges hand out sentence enhancements for owning Santa suits.

When I was on house arrest I was given a list of contraband. Among the items not allowed in my possession were toys, plush animals, and candy. I don’t recall a restriction on Santa suits.

“Caaaandies! Anybody want some caaaandies?” I laugh louder than the others, louder than even the Mexicans who are shrieking because Garza has farted, and Tino says it smells like wet baby shit and Garza had better stop or else the cho-mo might get turned on.

Many cho-moes have arrived on today’s bus. At dinner one can look across the chow hall to where the sex offenders sit quarantined beside the hot and cold bars and count—two, four, six, eight—eight blue shoes bouncing and jittering, crossing and recrossing beneath their tables.

“They’re taking over,” grumbles the man eating across from me. “Do you remember when they tried to start their own softball team?” A strange team they were, a study in juxtapositions, a mishmash of tall and short, thin and fat, bald and ponytailed, bearded and trimmed. They looked like the YMCA townspeople but without the panache. Sadly, the venture was short-lived. Come game day the opposing team walked off the field, refused to play.

“You watch,” says the man jabbing his spoon in the air. “Before you know it they’ll be in our TV rooms watching our TVs.”

After dinner a few of the veteran sex offenders stop by to give the newcomer a few items to get him started. They give him a plastic mug, a pair of shower shoes (“Size eleven; it’s all we could find.”), and a radio to borrow until he can buy his own from the commissary. They also dispense some advice. They recommend to the newcomer that he keep to himself, stay away from the “haters,” as they’re called. They tell him to get into a routine; routine keeps you sane and makes the time go by quicker.

That evening they gather on the rec yard, all of the new sex offenders, in a tight cluster beside the handball courts. In the few weeks they spent together at the transfer center they’ve developed, out of necessity, a safe clique with its own language, humor, and individual roles. Over time the men will stray to join other sex offender subcultures here—the queers, the intellects, the pseudo-intellects, the Jesus freaks, the dungeons-and-dragons freaks—so that in three months’ time they will hardly raise their hands to one another in passing. But for now they still rely on each other. They stick to their huddle, sharing an inside joke, tittering over some freshly observed irony, all the while searching for a place to put their hands. Those elastic-waist pants they wore on the bus have no pockets, and the soles of those soft shoes are as thin as slippers. They feel underdressed and overexposed, feel like everyone’s staring at them. And they are: the Mexicans on the handball courts, the whites in the horseshoe pits, the blacks on the weight pile. Everyone stares long and hard at the newest batch of sex offenders, searching each of them for the physical defect that might reveal a greater inner depravity. It’s like sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office trying to figure out what everyone’s got. That man with the droopy left eyelid—aggravated sexual assault. That one there with the red splotchy birthmark across his neck—indecency with a child. The young rangy one with the fair ponytail and feminine nose—kiddy porn, six-year-old girls, spankings.

I stare too, hoping not to see in them something of myself.

I watched a few of their practice games back when the sex offenders were still pushing to join the softball league. In the bleachers haters laughed and jeered—”Caaaandies?” Tonight the stands are empty, the benches deserted. The season was temporarily suspended by a seven-foot mound of dirt dumped beside second base. Jack says it’s the new inmate cemetery; really they’re leveling the field, patching the holes. I’d like to believe the other team forfeited because they were afraid of getting beaten and humiliated by a bunch of rapists, child molesters, and perverts. But there was really no competition. The sex offenders just weren’t that good.

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