In Mississippi our routine was to walk the track weekend mornings. It was on one of these walks that Cisco and I invented the game.
“That one there,” I’d say pointing to a lone figure sitting on the empty soccer field, his back against a goal post.
Cisco would squint and consider for a moment the man’s posture, the downward pitch of the head, the assemblage of the hands before giving his verdict: “Solitude.”
“Yes, solitude,” I’d agree. “And that man there, sitting beside the fence?”
“Oh, that’s loneliness. Look at the way he picks at the grass,” Cisco would say. “Definitely loneliness.”
One morning we spotted Brother Eric across the rec yard pacing behind the handball court. He was muttering to himself, likely preparing for that Wednesday’s sermon. We attended his outdoor service once, upon invitation. Sitting there in the grass behind the handball wall with ant-bitten ankles we listened along with some two dozen other men as Brother Eric, treading a line in the dirt, hands clasped behind his back, raged at the earth and at the sky, about what we weren’t sure—floods and spilt blood and baptism by fire. I got the impression we were jurors and he was pleading his case before God.
“Loneliness or solitude?” Cisco pointed to where Brother Eric paced his pulpit, his courtroom.
“That, Cisco,” I said, “is a cry for help.”
It was Jack who months ago suggested we eat breakfast together, thus establishing our current weekend morning routine. Routine, I have learned, is good; it keeps time ticking. Being an early riser it usually falls on me to wake Jack. I am struck at six in the morning by the peacefulness of my sleeping comrades, how soft and utterly void of malice and pretense are their faces. In the dark they more closely resemble the creatures their mothers birthed, though when the lights turn on, like dumping water on a gremlin, they turn into snarling, smoking terrors, bouncing off walls, reeking hijinks and havoc. I often find Jack lying on his side with one arm wrapped around his pillow as if it were a woman. His bare bicep reveals a cross with congruent arms capped in serifs. He told me once of a woman who, upon noticing his tattoo post-coitus, erupted into sobs. Jack asked her what was wrong. She said her family was from Poland; she was Jewish.
I wasn’t sure that morning of our first breakfast how best to wake Jack, whether I should tap his shoulder near his swastika tattoo or his hand which rested precariously close to his slack mouth. Had I done the latter I might have felt his hot breath on my fingers. Instead I shook what I knew with absolute certainty was his blanketed foot. A blanketed foot is inoffensive. A blanketed foot is safe. Later Jack would set a safer precedent by waking me with a firm pat on my mattress. Though once, having failed to stir me from a particularly heavy sleep, Jack grabbed my naked big toe. My eyes shot open. The intimacy startled me.
Intimacies of a more ferocious kind have led the staff to replace our old opaque shower curtains with curtains which are transparent on the tops and bottoms. In the library, the bathroom door has been completely removed from its hinges and, inside, a quarter’s height has been shaved off the tops of the stall doors. All this in an effort to squash illicit rendezvous. Someone quipped that in a few months’ time the soap scum buildup will render the shower curtains opaque again, returning some semblance of privacy. Joe said we should just be grateful we aren’t in state prison where the showers and stalls have no curtains or doors at all. The exposed commodes are so close together that one can share a roll of toilet paper with his shitting neighbor.
How strange to be so crowded and still so alone.
I thought it odd that Jack should have suggested we breakfast together. I thought he might have been angling for my bran cereal. But he confided to me that first morning, leaning over his food tray, that I am the only person here he can stand, quite a compliment coming from Jack, who unabashedly despises everyone. One morning over coffee and green bananas Jack plunked down his spoon and commented on what ugly sonsabitches we were surrounded by. It’s true. I looked around the chow hall at all the misshapen skulls, the squinty beetle eyes, the thin Aryan lips, the balding men still clinging to ponytails, the morbidly obese, the crippled, the toothless. I read somewhere of a study that concluded beyond statistical significance that prisoners are generally less attractive than free-world citizens. (I wonder: is it that ugly people commit more crime, or that ugly people are more likely to go to jail for committing crime? Furthermore: do uglier people get longer sentences than not-so-ugly people?)
“Just look at them,” Jack said. “I could make puppets out of these men. All I’d need is a few yards of felt, some pipe cleaners, wrench noses, and Ping-Pong balls for eyes.”
Aside from smart remarks and occasional rants, Jack and I don’t say much at breakfast. We ask what the other’s plans are for the day; they’re always the same: Jack will work out later in the evening, and I will go running just as soon as I’ve finished my coffee. Though we both exercise regularly, it doesn’t occur to us to do so together. Ours is an informal, loosely committed relationship. We enjoy a comfortable distance. Jack will sometimes pass my bunk on his way to the bathroom and flash me a quizzical thumbs up. Are you all right? Lying with my hands across my stomach, ear buds plugged into my head, eyes settled on the ceiling where my bunk number is stenciled—do I strike him as not all right? I feel sometimes we stand facing each other across a threshold: I raise a thumbs up, and he turns away.
Solitude then is running at dawn, another routine. After breakfast I head to the track, which is shorter than the track I walked with Cisco but wider and better paved. I stretch beside the bleachers, wriggling my fingers in the sandy soil. There is freedom to be had in surrendering to the dirt and sweat and stink. Prior to prison, the last time I ran was in elementary school, back in the days when Physical Education was a serious affair. Our gym coach was an unsmiling butch woman who made us run competitive sprints across the vast, barren field behind the school. I won only once, on a technicality. My opponent, so enthralled with his ten-yard lead, stopped short of the finish line.
Twenty years later, I’m still not very good at running. No doubt if she could see me, my old coach would raise her whistle to her unpainted mouth and lambast me for my deplorable form, my graceless clomping, my lavish, undisciplined breathing (one should breathe through the nose, not the mouth). Still I’ve developed a taste for running, the mindlessness of it, the sated exhaustion that comes afterward. With each lap past the weights pavilion I hear the angry clanking of iron on iron. Jack, who lifts in the evenings, who counts reps and sets and poundage, asks me how many laps, how many miles I’ve run. He asks what’s my best time. I shrug. I tell him that’s not the point.
I pass Bailey on the track most mornings and offer him a sweaty pat on the shoulder (shoulders are safe too). Last weekend at visitation, while his ten-year-old daughter was at the vending machine buying a Milky Way, his wife told him that she filed for divorce. Bailey’s hands, his whole body, trembled so badly that he had to stoop over in his chair and hang his head between his knees. Having been deceived, manipulated, and even extorted in the past, I’ve tried, as a new approach, to keep people at arm’s length, to be as unmovable and impenetrable as concrete. And yet, unbidden, a few men manage to penetrate my pores like creeping, ferocious water. Bailey saturates me with details of his collapsing marriage. Joe weathers me with financial aid questions for his son who is the first in his family to consider college. Even Jack, cold and disagreeable Jack, has come to me with red wet eyes after speaking with his mother on the phone. She told Jack that his teenage son had presented her with a Mother’s Day cake with Happy Mother’s Day—Love Jack piped across the top. Such a good boy.
They say there’s no friendship in prison. They say trust no one. Still, stubbornly, stupidly, we relent.
Bailey says he’ll have to buy a new pair of sneakers soon; the tread on his Reeboks is almost worn smooth, so often does he walk the track. Twenty miles every weekend, at least. A man in his dorm advised him not to sweat his marital troubles too much but instead focus on the few things he can control, like his health. Accordingly, Bailey enrolled in a cardio class. He courted a walking partner. He’s developing a routine. Already I can see the weight is coming off.