Kettle

Summers in West Texas: The gym bulletin boards are plastered with diagrams of the human form, the head turned, palms forward, feet splayed, filled as a vessel with water, sixty-five percent full, to just below the shoulders. There are reminders to wear sunscreen, UV heat indexes gradating from blue to mauve, sophisticated charts specifying how much water to consume per hour according to body weight, outside temperature, and workout intensity. One flier shows a spindly character, face tomato-red, with a curlicue of smoke rising from his head and steam shooting from his ears. Dizziness, nausea, the inability to produce tears—Do you know the signs of heat exhaustion?

The dorms offer little respite from the heat. The buildings are old and poorly insulated, and the heavily taxed AC system blows only tepid air. Fans dispersed throughout the living quarters, including one sitting on the bathroom floor, an obvious hazard, are ineffective, though their whining does help drown out bodily noises. By six o’clock every evening the forty-gallon-capacity ice machine on our floor is empty. Nights are especially uncomfortable. We lie awake in our underwear, slick with sweat, the sheets pulled down to our feet. I’m still awake sometimes when the officers walk through for the midnight count. They count us throughout the early morning, at twelve, three, and five o’clock. I like to think that the reason they count us so often is because we are something valuable and precious to them, an obsessive curator’s collection of fine Fabergé eggs or stuffed rare birds.

Renovations are set to begin this month on the aging dormitories. The AC will likely be one focus of the project. Construction will occur piecemeal, floor-by-floor, and, in Jack’s words, be like one prolonged tooth extraction.

“It’ll be expensive, drawn out, and half-assed. Remember when they renovated the bathroom? It took them three months to paint the walls and floor and within a week they were peeling again.”

Already the administration has begun the thorny process of relocating inmates ahead of the construction. It’s like figuring out seating arrangements for a wedding reception in which none of the guests get along; there’s no pleasing anybody. Everyone is afraid of who they might get stuck with for a neighbor or bunkmate. And there is also the fear, a very real fear, that moving at once so many inmates, nearly 150 men, will chafe the already delicate racial and political balances.

On that first day of reshuffling I hadn’t yet been back to the dorm to know if I’d received a bunkmate, though Jack was eager to break the news. Setting his tray opposite of me in the chow hall, Jack gleefully suggested I start brushing up on my Spanish.

“Pedro doesn’t speak a lick of English. Not a lick. No hablá Inglés.”

“He’s enjoying this,” I said to Jay sitting beside me.

“And you, Jay, are now living in a ghetto.”

Jay dropped his hot dog in his tray. “You’re pulling my leg.”

“No, sir. I wouldn’t pull your leg about this. They stuck all the blacks in your corner. Old School now sleeps to your left, Gangster lives beside the window to your right, and they put that white guy who thinks he’s black in the bunk above you.” Jack smeared a tater tot through a puddle of ketchup and popped it in his mouth. “Let’s just put it this way: you’ll be the first to know who wins the Essence Award.”

Pedro wasn’t around when I returned to the dorm, but evidence of his existence was strung like tinsel from the frame of what had once been solely my bunk. Towels and washrags hung at one end and at the other three pressed uniforms and a toiletries kit. A sack filled with Tupperware and seasoning bottles dangled idly in the space between our beds like a mobile. Pedro appeared just as I was squeezing past his laundry bag to get to my locker. We shook hands.

“It’s okay?” he asked. His somber brown eyes shifted to the hanging accoutrements. Our bunk looked like an overburdened pack animal.

“It’ll be fine,” I said.

“How you need . . . ?” Pedro pawed at the air; he was asking if I had enough room to climb.

“Oh, yes. There’s room.” I placed one foot on a brace at the end of the bunk and pushed myself up to put the other foot on top of my locker. “See? It’ll be fine.” My legs have grown strong from four years of sleeping in top bunks. As I was demonstrating my technique I noticed my neighbor Willy making his bed with excessive force. I asked him if he was all right.

“This always happens to me,” he said. “It’s like they put these people near me on purpose.”

“What’s that?”

“My new bunkie.” Willy pointed to the freshly made bed above his own. “He likes boys.”

Throughout the dorms the atmosphere was rife with grousing. Nobody was happy about the new arrangements. I heard one sex offender say to another he felt unsafe bunking with an affiliated white. A Mexican told someone he was just relieved not to have been placed near the Puerto Ricans. Nobody wants to be near the Puerto Ricans. The affiliated whites don’t want to be near the sex offenders, the Mexicans don’t want to be near the blacks, and the blacks don’t want to be near each other.

“They hate being black,” Jack said.

That night after lights out I scaled our bunk in the same manner I had demonstrated to Pedro. I leapt into a crouch atop my locker and crawled into bed on my hands and knees keeping low so as not to bump my head on the ceiling. The bunk swayed. Pedro’s Tupperware mobile spun churning up the smell of onion flakes and Sazon.

Somewhere between wakefulness and sleep I felt a tap near my elbow. I opened my eyes. It was Jack.

“Put your shirt on,” he said.

“What?”

“The blacks and Mexicans are butting heads in the next room. Put your shirt back on. Be ready, in case things kick off.”

Indeed the energy in the room had changed. Even in the dark I could sense it, like the mosquito-whine of a muted TV. Or like the West Texas summer heat: a still buzzing between the temples. I saw the cartoon with the tomato-red face, kettle steam shooting from his ears. I pulled on my T-shirt. Should I lace up my sneakers? Pull on my boots? Across the room I saw Jack’s muddy silhouette posted beside his bunk. The others in the room, the blacks and Mexicans in particular, had taken similar stances. They stood with their heads turned in the direction of the next room, listening for the call to arms.

Curious thoughts go through one’s mind when he’s in danger. There are thoughts of bravery: I’ll loop my combination lock through my belt and start swinging should anyone get close. Thoughts of heroism: I’ll protect Jack; I’ll jump on his assailant’s back, sink my teeth in his neck. Morbid thoughts, strangely pleasurable: they’ll knock me to the ground; they’ll kick my teeth into my brain pan.

Minutes passed. I wondered what kind of fighter I’d make, if I’d fight at all. Fight or flight, as they say. Then Jack, returning to bed, having just came from the next room, passed my bunk and gave me a single nod:

Not tonight.

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