Lookout

One

Espinosa crosses the cage in four strides and walks into the wall. He turns around, takes another four strides and walks into the opposite wall. Back and forth he continues, colliding into the cinderblock, not hard enough to harm himself, but with just enough force to make me wonder if I shouldn’t note his behavior in the log book. With each collision the Velcro on his smock tears. I recall reading that the Velcro’s inventor received his inspiration while picking burs from his pants. Bump—scratch! Bump—scratch!

In the log I write, simply, “Pacing.”

Earlier in my shift, before he began walking into walls, Espinosa told me of the time he got picked up by police in Mexico. They beat him, as they do most everyone they arrest. In Mexico beatings are as common to the intake process as fingerprinting. After they beat him they interrogated him, and when he refused to tell the police who he was working for they tortured him. They kicked him, broke three ribs. They tied him to a chair, covered his head in a sack, and poured water over him. They doused his hands with alcohol and set them on fire.

“Then they put the grass mat-cheen to my feet.”

“Grass machine—a lawn mower?”

“No, the mat-cheen for the weeds.” He swung his arms up and down over his bare feet like he was shaking out a blanket.

“A weed whacker?”

“Weed whacker, yes! They put the weed whacker to my feet!”

After they broke him, an officer approached Espinosa from behind. A soft small hand reached out and touched his face. They told him they had his daughter; they would kill her if he didn’t cooperate. He never saw the child’s face, but he swore the hand was real. It was warm. It moved. It caressed his wet cheek.

I asked Espinosa if the seizures began after the beating he took while in custody, but he said the seizures began later, after a head injury during a prison riot. According to the log book he suffered an attack just yesterday morning. The companion noted that the nurse responded promptly but that, for liability reasons, she wasn’t allowed to enter the cage without a second officer present. So for fifteen minutes she and the companion watched Espinosa jerk and shudder on the cage floor, his head knocking against the coving, until another officer arrived.

Bump—scratch! Bump—scratch!

“Are you all right?” I ask him.

“I’m angry,” he says, and before I can ask why he’s upset he breaks stride and raises both his arms to lean against the cage partition, inches from my face, a move that startles me more than his walking into walls and causes me to lean back in my chair.

“It was my grandmother; not my mother.” This he directs to the open doorway over my shoulder.

At first I don’t understand. I turn to look out the door but see nothing. Then from somewhere down the hall, likely near the x-ray room with its posted notice warding away pregnant women, I hear the nurse talking to the doctor. She’s telling him, incorrectly it seems, that it’s Espinosa’s mother who’s died.

“That nurse makes me think she doesn’t listen to me.”

Espinosa resumes pacing and strikes up a tune.

“Damn all those beautiful girls!” he croons to the fluorescent lights. “You got me suicidal when you say it’s over!”

Two

When dialed to full brightness the fluorescent lights in the watch room buzz like locusts at high noon in July, which is why many officers and some companions keep them dimmed, though they’re not supposed to. The lights are supposed to be turned up at all times, even at night, so that every corner of the cage stays illuminated and nothing is left to chance. In training one of the companions who volunteered at his last yard told us about a man who pinched the cellophane wrappers from his sandwiches over several meals and braided himself a rope beneath the blanket. The companion might not have noticed anything accept that the man’s face began to turn blue. This is why the lights must stay on.

Today, however, the lights are not on. They were dimmed when I arrived for my shift, and I haven’t bothered to readjust them. Behind the steel partition Freeman appears as a vague shadow sulking across the mattress. Though it goes against my directives, and could potentially be dangerous, the desire to be merciful, to give Freeman a break from the incessant chatter and scrutiny of the fluorescents, to be nice, is terribly strong, so I leave the lights turned down. I wonder if black men turn blue when they suffocate.

“Are you staring at me?” the shadow says.

“That’s the point. I’m supposed to watch you.”

He laughs without humor. “Most of the guys just look up once in awhile. You’re making me uncomfortable.”

“How about I look at the wall above you instead, that way I can keep you in my sight.” A compromise.

I tip my head back and let my eyes wander the height of the cage. The meshing has been painted and repainted so many times that the once rhomboid openings have shrunk to ellipses. Behind the steel curtain, Freeman is only a few shades darker than the gloom around him.

“Are you still staring at me?”

“Nope.”

“You’re making me uncomfortable, dawg.”

Just before noon the psychologist arrives with two food trays. She asks me to eat my lunch in the hall while she visits with Freeman. This is a novel experience, eating alone instead of in a crowded chow hall, and one I decide I like very much. I cut my meatballs in half and chew slowly, basking in the companionable silence. At the far end of the corridor a narrow pane set in the emergency exit offers a Rothko interpretation of the rec yard: tall swatches of pearly sky and copper earth, a pewter chain-link horizon.

Across the hall the watch room door opens and the psychologist waves me back inside. Freeman appears in better spirits after talking with the doctor. He tells me after she leaves that he feels he can pull through now. “I can do this,” he says. I notice that the doctor has turned the lights up. The locusts have returned, but Freeman doesn’t seem to mind. He looks small and fragile in the light.

I consult the log book, though for privacy reasons I don’t expect the psychologist to have left any details of their conversation. I flip back to the shift before mine, to yesterday’s shifts, to the shifts before that. One entry catches my eye. It’s a comment Freeman made to the companion the morning he was admitted. “Next time I’ll cut deeper.”

Three

The psychologist warned us that Mr. Reed has a history of cutting. The doctor’s professional habit is to refer to all inmates as misters, which makes us sound older, more respectable, and like she’s selling us insurance. Mr. Reed however is no older than twenty and looks even younger. He has dark mermaid hair, black beady eyes, and a rabbit mouth. The fuzz above his upper lip looks more like dirt than a mustache.

During the briefing a companion asked with what exactly Mr. Reed might cut himself. After all, he has only a smock and blanket; his sack meals contain no utensils. By way of an answer the doctor recounted the time she was counseling an inmate who suddenly pulled a razor from between his toes and set to work on his wrists. This reminded me of a similarly troubling though innocuous encounter of my own in which I caught a man I was observing sucking a fireball. He in fact had a whole stash of candy beneath the mattress. I asked where he got it, but he just smiled and shrugged.

“Who knows how he got the razor,” said the doctor. “A kitchen worker might have slipped it in his lunch, an officer or companion might have given it to him, he might have snuck it in himself. You never know what’s going to happen on a watch. Just be on the lookout.”

I look up from my cheese sandwich. Mr. Reed is still asleep. Where his heart is the blanket rises infinitesimally. His own sack lunch sits beside me on the floor, uneaten. According to the logs, he’s refused all meals for the past two days. He says he’s fasting. It’s about the only thing he’s said to anybody, though some companions have noted occasional noises—”bleeps,” squeaks, and at least one guffaw, as if a joke were written on the ceiling.

Just as I’m peeling into an orange the nurse arrives for her hourly check-in. The jangle of her keys causes Mr. Reed to stir.

“Mr. Reed,” I call out, adopting the doctor’s formality, though I’m not sure why. “Mr. Reed, the nurse is here. Wouldn’t you like to eat?”

The kid lifts his head and blinks at me mole-like. “No. I’m good.”

“Mr. Reed, are you sure? I’ve got a yummy cheese sandwich here on stale bread. And look—fruit.”

After a moment’s consideration he folds and allows the nurse to pass him his food through the bean slot. As he stoops to pick up a dropped mustard packet, I catch a sliver of backside poking out from behind his smock, a luminous crescent, God’s fingernail.

The psychologist encourages us to talk to the men on suicide watch should they feel like talking. In training we’re taught to ask questions, listen actively, to be a sounding board by which they can ruminate on their problems and hopefully arrive at a less dire solution than death. Whether this works, I don’t know. I’ve never tried it. Asking a fellow inmate how the passing of his grandmother or how his wife’s filing for divorce makes him feel strikes me as insincere and hypocritical; sometimes I stare through the round eyelets that were once rhomboids and wish it were me in that cage, if just for the peace and quiet. I wouldn’t mind the buzzing lights.

But today I decide I need to save this man, because he accepted my food, because he’s just a kid, because I’ve seen him in the chow hall sitting near the hot and cold bars with the other sex offenders.

“I saw your mom.”

Reed looks up from his cheese sandwich.

“I saw her at visitation. You were both standing in front of me. I mean, I think it was your mom.” She had the same rabbit mouth. She asked her son if he wasn’t feeling better now, and, with an odd detachment, he nodded at the windows and said, yes, he was doing better.

“Yeah,” Reed says now with the same detachment, as though he were idly pulling petals from a daisy. “That’s my mom.”

“She seemed nice,” I say.

“She’s pretty nice,” he agrees and continues nibbling his sandwich.

I think of other things I want to say to him—She seemed concerned. She seems to really love you. I haven’t seen my mom in two years.—but the moment passes and suddenly I’m very tired, too tired to say anything or save anybody. I just want this shift to end.

After lunch Reed sits on the edge of the mattress and screams.

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