Before the roadrunner came into our lives there was the skunk, whose feather duster tail could often be seen surfacing from the tall grass behind the library like a periscope. We presumed him male and assigned him familiar vices. Our skunk was a carouser, a gambler, a lover of women. He drank Jim Bean. Sadly, the staff did not share our affection. A trap was set, and in the morning we woke to find our skunk penned inside a cage on the library lawn, his tail extruding through the wire mesh like cheese through a grater. I thought of Russian nesting dolls: a cage within a cage within a cage.

Our newest mascot caused a stir when it arrived shortly after the New Year. Officer Parsons, peering out from the recreation shack, saw a mob of inmates gathered in front of the chapel and mistook the commotion for a fight. With one hand poised atop his radio he jogged toward the scuffle but found at its center not two dueling prisoners but a single bird crouched in the grass, its head tilted toward the sparrows tittering in the chapel’s silvery birch. Officer Parsons’ hand relaxed.

“A roadrunner,” someone said.

“But how did it get in?” said another inmate.

“Why, he flew of course.”

“Roadrunners can fly?”

“Sure they can. Just not very high. Like chickens.”

The inmates turned their gazes toward the twelve-foot fence trimmed in razor wire and then, enviously, back to the bird.

Like with our beloved skunk, we presumed the roadrunner a he. Jack however argued the bird was clearly female, on account of its diminutive size and lack of a pluck. Jack after all has some experience in these matters. He used to deal exotic pets, when he wasn’t dealing dope, and he claims to have once witnessed a roadrunner eating a house cat.

“It was yay tall,” he said, “and in its beak I saw a strip of orange fur. I couldn’t for the life of me think of any Texas-native animal with an orange pelt. And then I realized, my god, it’s eating a tabby.”

Jay leaned into my ear. “He’s full of shit. He was high and watching Loony Tunes.”

It’s true Jack has a penchant for telling incredible tales, everything from viscous animal attacks to machinery mishaps, bar room brawls to parking lot shootouts. But as fantastical as his stories are, I tend to believe that a man who’s spent most of his adult life in the company of drug dealers, burnouts, motorcycle gangsters, and crack whores can’t help but accumulate a vast collection of colorful stories.

“I suppose it’s possible,” I said, offering him the benefit of a doubt. “The encyclopedia says roadrunners are ‘opportunistic omnivores.'”

Jack laughed. “So are inmates.”

The inmate population here at Big Spring FCI has seen a sharp drop in the past year, falling from over 1,700 inmates to just under 1,100. The dorms are littered with vacant bunks and stripped mattresses. Lockers sit empty, robbed by other inmates of their shelves and hooks. Many men were shipped elsewhere due to overcrowding. Some elected to participate in distant drug abuse programs that would allow them up to a year off their sentences. Others have gone home. Henderson is scheduled to release to a halfway house this week and talks incessantly about such things as bus fare, itineraries, identification papers, and job interviews. Here in prison Henderson has earned his living and reputation as milk man. Every morning he wakes at quarter till six to smuggle milk from the chow hall to the dorm, where he keeps the pint-sized pouches on ice beneath his bed and sells them for a stamp a piece. What will he do in the free world? We know of Henderson in only one context, that of inmate, and cannot fathom him a civilian, working nine to five, clocking in and out, spending his Sunday mornings not stuffing his trousers with milk but sitting at his kitchen table paying bills and balancing a checkbook.

Do people still use checkbooks?

Someone asked Henderson, somewhat cheekily, what sort of job a meth addict with no prior work experience expected to find. Henderson got defensive.

“I worked when I was out there!” he cried. “I worked, I did! I worked twenty-three, twenty-five hours a day!”

Those of us left behind console ourselves by waging bets on who will return. The odds are always in our favor.

Earlier in the week we said goodbye to another character, Joe Dirt, so named for his scruffy resemblance to the star redneck in the film by the same name. Two days before his release he astonished us by shaving his iconic beard. More astonishing was that he was handsome, his eyes blue and kind. Given teeth he’d be a real looker. I asked Jack why the prison never fitted him for dentures.

“They did. He sold them.”

“He sold his teeth? But why?”

“Because he’s Joe Dirt. A better question is who in hell buys another man’s teeth?”

Joe Dirt could sell just about anything, and did, but his primary hustle was pornography. If Henderson was the milk man, Joe Dirt was the porn man. He kept his wares in a beat up photo album and sold each picture for a stamp, two if it was explicit. A seasoned salesman, he conducted all transactions with the utmost discretion, never judging, never batting an eye, not even at the more unusual requests for transvestites and women with braces. But despite his hustling prowess, Joe Dirt never had dirt, was always bumming a soup or coffee off his neighbors. His locker, when we ransacked it, was an echo chamber. He had no money and, to our limited knowledge, no family. I wondered aloud what Joe Dirt would have worn on the journey back to Pennsylvania, seeing as he had no one to send him street clothes.

“Blue jean,” Jack said. “They’d have given him some cheap jeans and a T-shirt. They don’t let you leave here in your khakis.”

I imagined Joe Dirt in his American Glories, staring out the Greyhound window, his blue eyes reflecting back at him like pale moons in the noon sky, marveled, frightened.

“He’ll be back,” Jack said. “Guys like Joe who have nothing to go home to always come back.”

The inmate population has thinned and no affiliation has been more affected than the good old white boys. Their numbers and consequently their clout have dwindled, not so much because of transfers or releases but because of treachery. It seems every month a charlatan—an undercover snitch or child molester—is discovered among their ranks, much to the delight of the confirmed sex offenders who often joke that the good old white boys aren’t as good as they claim themselves to be. The white dominion took another blow, literally, when a disagreement over televisions spurred a fight between the whites and West Texas Hispanics. The Mexicans easily overpowered the whites, cornering them in the TV room, locks swinging. For those able to escape, a second wave of Mexicans awaited them in the hall. The white shot caller ran through the dorm calling to arms every and all good white boys. An SO was said to have shouted back over the ruckus, “Let me know when you find one!”

That night seven whites were taken to the hole, and three were sent to the hospital. One man is rumored to possibly lose an eye.

Jay said the TV room was a mess after the incident, with crimson spattered on the floor and on walls and in chairs. As a blood spill orderly, Jay is trained in the cleanup of bodily fluids. It was the second time in a month he’s had to glove up, the first being when a Hispanic man sliced open his own arm with a razor in the bathroom. Jay, who isn’t one for sentimentality, took to calling the blade-happy Hispanic man Zorro.

“How’s Zorro doing? Is he still on suicide watch?”

“My shift isn’t until tomorrow,” I said. I’d been looking forward to seeing the hot-blooded Latin in a smock. “And technically he’s Puerto Rican. Zorro was Spanish.”

“Whatever. He’s lame is what he is, cutting himself over a gambling debt. Didn’t even hit an artery. Couldn’t even kill himself right.”

I never did get the opportunity to see Zorro in the buff; he was released from watch just short of my shift. Later at the debriefing we reviewed his internment with the psychologist and that prior of an elderly Native American who suffered a long list of depressing aliments including a gimpy leg, poor eye sight, and total deafness in one ear. A threat to public safety, for sure. After having refused his breakfast that morning, I asked the man if he wouldn’t like to eat lunch.


“Your lunch, sir. It’s arrived,” I said loudly. “Would you like a sandwich?”

“I’d rather have a rope!”

I opened the brown bag. Inside were two slices of bread, a slice of cheese, and two apple halves, all wrapped in paper towels, as plastic is a potential choking hazard.

“I’m sorry. No rope,” I said. “But look—a cookie.”

The old man relented and allowed the nurse to pass him his food through the cage door’s bean slot. Like the milk Henderson steals from the chow hall, the juice too comes in pouches. The nurse attempted to tear through the plastic, but it was thick and her nude-lacquered nails kept slipping from the condensation. She considered going in search of scissors.

“Your teeth,” I said. “You have to bite it.”

She placed one end of the pouch between her teeth and bit down gingerly as a mother bites a stray thread from a child’s coat.

“Is this how you guys do it?” she asked, not unkindly.

“Yes, I think you’ve got it.”

But the puncture was too small and the juice dribbled watery pink into the Styrofoam cup for what seemed a life sentence.

“It takes practice,” I said.

At the debriefing we reviewed the usual laundry list of concerns. The psychologist reminded us that the lights in the watch room must remain at full brightness, that our log entries should be concise and objective, that our charge’s face and hands should remain visible at all times. The doctor also raised an important change in procedure. Should the inmate try to harm himself, the provided phone will now automatically ring Control, no need to dial zero.

“By the way,” she said, her tone brightening. “Has anyone seen this roadrunner?”

We roused at the mention of our new mascot.

“Positively terrifying!” she cried. “It decapitated a ground squirrel outside my office.”

Indeed the roadrunner has amassed a reputation for ferocity. Its bloodlust draws scores of inmates and staff alike. It was the crowd that first caught my attention and not the bird itself, which was rather drab, hardly larger than a pigeon, and nothing at all as I’d imagined. But what our mascot lacks in ornamentation it makes up for in speed and cunning. On spindly legs it slinked toward a host of sparrows and hunkered down behind a lip of pavement. Its tail teetered in the wind, testing currents, calculating geometries. Like giddy school children we held our breath and pressed our noses to the bell jar.

When the attack came the roadrunner did not as one might expect reach for the closest morsel but instead hedged all bets and plunged headlong into the flock, beak snapping at every opportunity. It emerged from the feathery froth victorious with a flinching sparrow in its jaws. We cheered.

“That roadrunner one bad motherfucker!”

“A stone-cold killer, that roadrunner!”

The roadrunner retired to the shade of an aloe vera to pluck clean its meal. Gray down flitted past my legs, tickling my ankles, to collect along the fence line. Within minutes the dead sparrow was as naked as a newborn mouse. Unlike the savagery of the hunt, the consummation was a solemn, almost religious occasion. With delicacy and reverence the roadrunner took up the soft body in its beak, tilted its head, shivered, swallowed. Though unlikely, someone claimed to have seen the tiny bird still moving in its final moments.

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A faux fir stands trimmed in silver garland and twinkling lights in the Vocations Department. Crimson poinsettias deck the Food Service Management classroom. Meanwhile in the dormitories the bulletin boards have been lined with shimmering gift wrap, on top of which are posted various announcements. A notice from Commissary informs us that Christmas cards are sold out. A menu from Food Service promises Cornish hen for the holiday dinner. A message from the Bureau of Prisons, scribed in both English and in Spanish, implores us to report incidents of sexual assault to executive staff, while another multilingual bulletin directs us to report suspected suicidal ideation among our peers to Psychology.

Stapled atop the tessellated ornaments and candy canes, and beside the handmade sign offering a reward for a lost set of headphones, another flier announces the return of the annual Christmas pageant. Jay induced me to go, promising there’d be cookies.

The chapel was packed come Christmas Eve. All chairs as far back as the baptism pool were filled, and extra seating had to be arranged off the pulpit near the band. The keyboardist donned a white bed sheet and cardboard wings. Behind the microphones a black and a Mexican man crooned a jazzed up version of “O Holy Night.”

“Quite a turn out,” Jay said. “Looks like every SO on the compound showed up tonight.”

I turned in my seat. Sure enough the audience was almost entirely sex offenders. I recognized several men from my fitness class, including the instructor, who was sipping punch beside the Christmas tree. According to the program most of the performers and stagehands themselves were SO’s, as was the playwright, Deejay Castellon, a former disc jockey serving time for molestation. It isn’t that these misfits seek God so much as they seek His hospitality; the church is one of the few places where the sex offenders are welcome, if only because the more dominant affiliations have no practical use for religion.

The outcasts applauded as the opening act came to a close and an accordion partition was drawn across the pulpit, creating an informal backstage. Bailey, who had enlisted in the pageant only after another stagehand dropped out at the last minute, tried his best to maneuver the unwieldy contraption. Meanwhile a second crew member dragged a podium to the center of the floor, on top of which sat an old rotary. The phone rang from somewhere overhead. The keyboardist cum angel rose from behind his instrument to take the call.

“Hello. Angel Assignment Headquarters. Merry Christmas . . . Yes, Sir. Of course, Sir . . . It will be done according to Your will.”

Just then a second angel emerged from behind the partition, played by a bearded, ruddy-faced sex offender known among the merrily self-degrading SO crowd as Pedo Clause. “Good morning, chief,” he said. “Angel Mitchell checking in. No occurrences to report; all quiet on my watch. Was that the phone I heard?”

The archangel set the receiver in its cradle and explained that the Most High had chosen him, Angel Mitchell, for a very important assignment. “At precisely 8:21 A.M. you and your charge John will come into brief contact with one Joe Smith, whose life is scheduled to end at 2:53 P.M.”

Pedo Clause clasped his rosy cheeks. “That’s so sad! And on Christmas too!”

The archangel nodded. “Your assignment is to get your man John to witness to Joe at the bus stop. It will be the last opportunity for Joe to hear the gospel before he dies.” The chief waggled his finger. “But remember the enemy will be on the defense against any attempt to rob him of his prize, so stay on guard.”

The PA clicked on: “And now a message from our sponsors.”

Bailey took his cue and proceeded in manhandling the partition while Pedo Clause absconded with the podium. The archangel resumed his place behind the keyboard. A haunting organ riff emanated from the instrument as the partition was jerked aside to reveal the backstage on fire. Standing amidst the smoke and flame projections was Satan, who appeared in the form of a curly-haired sex offender named Carlson.

“Hi,” Carlson said. “I’m Satan, and I’m inviting you to my annual fire sale.”

Carlson fiddled nervously with his horns.

“That’s right, folks. I’m selling slightly-used goods at low, low prices, all obtained from knuckleheads who thought they could take it with them.” He motioned to a table laid out with various props. “You like money? I’ve got thousands here, barely singed, and available to you for pennies on the dollar. Electronics your thing? I’ve got deeds to houses and titles to cars. And here’s a real collector’s item—an authentic German Luger.”

It was the one prop the prison staff absolutely would not let the inmates replicate, no matter how inconceivable its fabrication. For this, Carlson fashioned his hand into the shape of a pistol and pressed it lovingly to his chest.

“No job? No credit? No problem! Perhaps you have a soul you wouldn’t mind trading.” The Luger went off, startling the audience. “That’s Satan’s fire sale, across the Lake of Fire. Hurry now for the hottest deals in town!”

I tapped Jay on the elbow. “This is better than a Charlie Brown Christmas special.”

Bailey sealed off the pits of hell and the stage was again transformed, this time from fire and brimstone to a sunny bus stop where two strangers sat reading newspapers. Neither pedestrian noticed the angel standing over the older man’s shoulder.

“Listen to me, John,” said Pedo Clause leaning into his charge’s ear. “That man needs to hear the good news that Jesus saves. You’ve met him here many times before. Don’t you think it’s time you told him about Jesus?”

John, a child pornographer, stared down the middle aisle as if considering his subconscious. He turned to his fellow commuter. “Any good news?”

“I’m sorry?”

“In the paper—anything good?”

“Oh, same as always,” the young man said. “Nothing but bad.”

“Yes,” said John sighing theatrically, “the world seems to be getting worst all the time. Makes you wonder what it’s all coming down to, doesn’t it?”

The two men had just begun introducing themselves when Satan came careening around the partition, inadvertently smacking his pitchfork against the leg of a front row seat. Carlson took his place behind the younger man, opposite Pedo Clause. “So!” he cried. “My source was right! Trying to steal what’s mine, huh?”

“It’s still open season!” Pedo Clause shot back.

“He’s mine, and he’s going to stay that way. So just make like a cigarette and butt out.”

“Fat chance, wormwood. We’ve already got him hooked.”

Unaware of the angel and demon bickering at their backs, John proceeded to preach the Word of God to Joe. He told Joe about the bondages of sin, about the peace that comes from knowing God, and about the eternal life He’s promised for those who believe.

“Don’t listen to him, Joe!” Satan hissed. “He’s one of those fanatics like you see on TV.”

Joe wavered. “I don’t know. Who says He even cares? Every day I read in the newspaper about earthquakes and plane crashes, murder and terrorism.”

The angel countered by prompting John to recall what he’d read in his morning devotional.

“Death,” John recited, “is the penalty man pays for having sinned against God.”

“But why doesn’t God do something about it, especially at Christmas?”

“He did. He sent His only Son to suffer the penalty on the cross so that we may be forgiven.”

Pedo Clause looked at his watch. Frantically he pulled from his bed sheet a cell phone and stabbed at its cardboard buttons. “Hello, Headquarters? Angel Mitchell here. We have an emergency situation. Joe is under strong conviction, but the bus is due any second. We need more time!”

A homosexual inmate wearing a stripped tie interrupted just then and asked us if our sins were the color of scarlet. He asked if our souls were sodden by transgression. “If you answered yes, you need new and improved Holy Spirit Soap! It brightens! It whitens! It removes even the toughest sin stains with its active ingredient—salvation!” When we returned from the commercial, the angel was praying, Satan was biting his nails, and Joe’s resistance was beginning to wane.

“I wish I could have peace,” he said. “Lately I’ve been so lonely and depressed. My life seems so empty.”

John touched the younger man’s shoulder. “Until you have Jesus in your heart, you’ll never know the fulfillment of peace. He’s the only One who can give your life real meaning.”

The angel’s phone went off and a faraway voice over the loudspeaker announced that an angel in the vicinity had successfully delayed the bus with an engine problem. Pedo Clause slapped the mock phone shut and pumped his fist.

“Today is the day of salvation,” John continued. “Don’t turn Him away. Jesus said, ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.'”

Carlson brandished his pitchfork. “Don’t do it!” he cried.

“I want to do it,” Joe said, “but I don’t know how.”

“Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. Confess your sinfulness to God and ask Jesus to live inside you. Would you like to pray that with me now?”

Carlson gnashed his teeth and beat his fists on the floor, his horns slipping down his forehead.

“Man, I’d love that,” Joe said. And the two men, oblivious to Satan’s distress, joined hands and bowed their heads.

The audience applauded. The cast and crew assembled in front of the partition. Joining them was the playwright and former deejay Castellon, who assumed center stage under the guise of a hapless naif called “Eugene,” an alter ego of Castellon’s invention and one I imagine he summoned often on his radio program. With his inmate khakis hiked up and his Buddy Holly glasses pinching the top of his nose, Eugene waved enthusiastically to the audience causing his Santa hat to fall into his face. The sex offenders laughed, for in addition to his absurdity we recognized in Eugene’s bespectacled bewilderedness our own sense of displacement.

Behind Eugene the company made a show of clearing their throats before launching into the pageant’s final act, an inmate rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

“On the first day of Christmas a CO gave to me—first place at com-mis-sa-ry!”

The choir paused and Eugene, looking crestfallen, reached into his pocket and held up a red commissary ticket. “But I was first in line!” he cried. The ticket read “102.”

The song continued with each day of Christmas revealing some fresh iniquity of prison life: the pettiness of inmates, the incompetence of staff, the tedium of bureaucracy. The audience roared.

“On the fifth day of Christmas the Laundry gave to me—five-XL boxers!”

Eugene pulled out an enormous pair of white underwear and shook it out like a tarpaulin. “Are those skid marks?”

The next day Eugene was assigned a new bunkmate called “Killer.” On the ninth day he was reprimanded with nine hours’ extra duty for feeding the ground squirrels. My sides were splitting by the last day when all twelve of Eugene’s Christmas cards were returned by the mailroom for his use of the abbreviation “FCI” in the return address; policy requires that “Federal Correctional Institution” be spelled out.

Eugene bowed. The angels curtsied. Satan speared the oversized boxer shorts and waved them over his head in surrender. Every sex offender—every pedophile, voyeur, collector, pervert, queer, and freak—took to his feet to cheer, myself included. Jay remained where he was however, doubled over on the floor, his hands gripping his stomach. “It’s true!” he said, tears streaming down his face. “It’s funny because it’s so true!”

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No one seems able to agree on how the custom of knocking on the mess hall tables got started. Some say the practice began in state prisons where inmates, pressed to eat quickly, exchanged knocks in place of formal pleasantries. Some argue that apart from expediency, knocking discouraged men from talking with their mouths full. Yet others claim that originally one knocked to be granted permission before joining a table. Today knocking is an optional courtesy by which men excuse themselves from the meal. For those of us who observe it, the custom has become so deeply ingrained that we’ve mused whether it might follow us when we leave prison. Imagine rising from a meal and mindlessly knocking on the family dinner table. From what other bizarre behaviors will we have to break ourselves? Someone once told me that his stepfather continued for years after prison to live a Spartan life, owning only a single spoon, cup, and bowl.

Bailey nodded as he passed, oatmeal in hand, and took a seat at an adjacent empty table. I knocked and gathered my coat and tray to join him.

“The remediation was yesterday,” he said when I sat down. “She took everything—the house, the cars, the savings. She’s allowing me ten grand and my old tools, except the power washer. She says she’ll need that to get the house ready to sell by March.” Bailey’s hands fluttered over his tray, rearranging his breakfast. He moved the apple halves from the left- to right-hand slot and swapped his cup between the opposing corner hollows. His fingers trembled as he unraveled his spoon from his paper napkin.

“Twelve years we were married. We had a daughter together. I raised her two kids from her first marriage like they were my own. And from that I walk away with a few grand and some tools. ‘What am I supposed to do with tools?’ I asked her. She said I’ll have my family to care for me when I get out. I’ll be fifty then. I don’t need my elderly parents supporting me into my fifties.” He picked up his milk, set it back down. “I want to quit.”

He looked up then, perhaps remembering my participation in the suicide watch program, and my obligation to report troubling behavior.

“But I won’t,” he added. “I won’t quit.”

Such fatalistic language is a strong indicator of suicidal ideation. At this past week’s quarterly training we reviewed this and some of the more subtle symptoms of suicidal intent, which can include giving away possessions and losing interest in once pleasurable activities. A sudden shift from overwhelming despair one day to extreme joy the next is another sign that a person might be thinking of offing himself. Dr. Blatt reminds us that when speaking of suicide, “offing” is not one of the preferred terms prescribed in the Bureau of Prison’s Suicide Prevention for Inmate Companions handbook. Neither is it acceptable to say “committed” suicide, as it sounds criminal, or “completed” suicide, as death is not a goal to be encourage. Rather, when saying that someone has bit the bullet (also not a preferred term), we are directed to use the neutral and rather fussy formulation “death by suicide.”

One of the companions, Ledbetter, raised his hand. It’s true, he said, that joy can sometimes preempt suicide; he himself recalled feeling relieved after he’d settled on the decision to kill himself.

For those of us whose attentions had wandered, we were unsure whether we’d heard him correctly. A few of us had likely been transfixed by the drug posters hung about the classroom. One provocative image showed a young woman’s heroine-addled body overlaid with cutaways of her diseased gums, shriveled liver, and elephant-gray vulva. I’d been straining toward the handsome youth on the methamphetamine poster, hoping I might see penis, but Ledbetter’s head was in the way. He went on, recounting to the class how prior to his suicide attempt he gave away all his most prized possessions, finalized his will, even tidied up the house so as not to be a burden to the survivors. The classroom’s old grade-school desks creaked uneasily. Dr. Blatt seemed at a loss.

“How did you do it?” I wondered aloud.

“Hanging,” he said.

Later during the break, Ledbetter told me that it was by divine intervention he survived. He doesn’t know exactly what happened after he blacked out, but when he came to, it was to find he’d somehow regained a foothold atop the overturned paint bucket, which had miraculously righted itself.

Suicide, Dr. Blatt tells us, accounts for about 40,000 deaths per year in the U.S., a figure roughly double that of homicide. More women attempt suicide than men, but men more often die from their attempts because they tend to choose more lethal means. The resolute male reaches for rope and hot lead, whereas the fainthearted female dallies with razors and pills. At least this was my interpretation of the statistic, as it left me feeling emasculated for once having fancied downing a bottle of aspirin my first week in Mississippi. I had made the mistake of mentioning this remote fantasy in a monitored phone call and promptly found myself sitting across from the prison’s chief psychologist.

“Do you know what swallowing a bottle of aspirin would do to you?” he asked. His office had been entirely bare except for a photograph of a cat taped to the wall behind his desk. I asked him about the picture, but he sidestepped and instead delved into what fascinating significance might be gleaned from my feline fixation. Somehow I doubted he owned any cat.

“Swallowing a bottle of aspirin wouldn’t kill you,” he continued. “It would only make you sick. It would make you so devastatingly and irreversibly sick that you’d wish you had never swallowed a bottle of aspirin. Do you understand?”

I stared over his shoulder, still miffed about the cat. “So you’re saying I should choose a better method.”

There was one other photograph in the doctor’s office, this one properly framed and hung near the door. It was of an aerial view of a maximum-security USP, a multi-tiered neoclassical fortress of whitewashed columns and arches, where the doctor had once worked.

“Now that was a prison,” he said, implying my then current residence was a country club by comparison.

“Do you want to know what your problem is?” he asked.

I was certain I did not.

“Your problem is that you are very self-centered. You say you hate this place, say you don’t know what the point is or what to do with yourself, indulge in these destructive fantasies. You do realize it’s not all about you? He leaned forward in his chair. “I understand that prison can be especially difficult for people who are intelligent; this place can be as intellectually incarcerating as it is physically. But rather than thinking about yourself all the time, you might try thinking about others. There are plenty of men here who haven’t had the benefit of an education as you have. Maybe you could lend them a hand.”

I wasn’t pleased to be pinned the self-absorbed brat that I most certainly was. I left the doctor and his dumb cat feeling triumphant that I was indeed misunderstood, downtrodden—the victim. When subsequently I signed on as a tutor, it wasn’t because I genuinely desired to help people but because it beat washing dishes in the mess hall. When I volunteered for suicide watch, it wasn’t because I wanted to save anyone’s life but because I thought the experience would be, in some vague way, interesting. The extra cash didn’t hurt either.

Surely it was by this lack of earnestness that I proved no brilliant tutor. None of the men I taught earned his GED, and I quit after a year, citing the job was “thankless.” Nor have I exactly been a leader in the cause of suicide prevention. I space out during watches, I avoid talking to the participants whenever possible, and once during a particularly boring shift I wandered off to the bathroom to masturbate.

At least a few companions have expressed similar ambivalence toward suicide watch. The complaint was again raised during training that the inmates placed on watch aren’t really suicidal. “Most of them are just faking it,” one companion said. It’s true some inmates only pretend to want to hurt themselves because they think they might gain something: sympathy, attention, resolution to some perceived injustice, a transfer to a posh medical facility. Dr. Blatt reminded us that it isn’t the companion’s duty to assess the intentions of the inmate on watch. To do so could compromise the inmate’s safety.

“You must remain vigilant,” she said, “regardless of whether you think the inmate is faking it. You don’t want to risk someone hurting himself because you made a faulty assumption.”

I wondered if I wasn’t making a faulty assumption about Bailey. Would he really quit? Throw in the towel? Sell the farm? (More nonpreferable terms.) I downed the last sip of my coffee and wadded my napkin. I decided to let the remark fly. Impassioned haste, I reasoned. It was getting late, besides, and I had clothes to drop off before the Laundry Department closed. How can I save other people’s lives when I’m busy trying to save my own?

I pulled my hat over my head and gathered my tray. As I reached for my coat, Bailey’s hand shot across the table and squeezed my fingers. It was a clumsy, self-conscious gesture.

“Thank you for sitting with me,” he said.

I knocked on the table. “It’s no problem.”

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It wasn’t the softly shuddering rain that woke me but the scraping of steel legs on concrete. A leak, cold and black in the dark, had sprung over someone’s bed. Throughout the dorm men pushed their bunks clear of the drips, stripped their mattresses, and set mop buckets in aisles and atop lockers. As we settled back into our dry beds, bars of mute lighting flickered over the room.

As predicted, renovations on the dorms have stalled. For the past month the neighboring unit has sat vacant with ductwork stacked on the floor. It seems the only progress made has been to pull the bunks away from the walls to allow for painting. Not everyone is thrilled with the new color scheme. One man said that the pale blue stripes remind him of a day-care center or nursery. Another man countered that both are apt metaphors for a men’s prison. Elsewhere on the compound, signs of abandonment and neglect catch the eye. Torrential rains have washed out the road to the library. A cracked window pane in the chow hall, struck by an errant pigeon, remains boarded. A trench dug for the purpose of erecting a fence between the upper and lower yards lies enshrined in yellow caution tape, and the road cones have toppled in the wind.

Perhaps it was this raggedness, in collusion with the cooling seasons and shorter days, that made me decide I needed a change of routine. Routine is the bedrock of every inmate’s bid, the pendulum that drives the clock, and lately mine had seemed to have grown stale. A flier in the rec center advertised a fitness class that promised to whip me into the best shape of my life. Jay’s been going since March and suggested I join.

Class meets three nights a week in the gym, a faceless brick box only slightly larger than the basketball court it accommodates. Evening regimens were well underway when I arrived. The sidelines were thick with synthetically-clad men squatting and lunging, pushing and sitting up. All ellipticals were occupied and cranked to maximum tension, and judging by the Rorschach sweatblots on the fronts of their shirts, some of the men were already into their second wind.

Meanwhile on one end of the court a crew of mostly Hispanics warmed up by shooting baskets. Those not playing did push-ups or handstands, and some did push-ups and handstands at the same time. I asked Jay who these titans of Olympia were.

“That’s the other fitness class,” he said. “They’re mostly West Texans and Tango Blasters. We share the same timeslot.”

Across the gym the Hispanics had taken up medicine balls and were hurling them at the floor. The thundering impact made my scrotum tighten. I turned my attention to our side of the court where Jay and I sat stretching alongside eighteen or so other men. Of our own crew, three were over the age of fifty, five were overweight, at least one morbidly so, and four, not including myself, were clearly homosexuals.

“Jay, if those other men are West Texans, who are we?”

Jay lowered his water bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He smiled. “Why, we’re the sex offenders, of course.”

Of course I knew Jay was a sex offender. After a career in the army, where he served as a sniper, Jay entered law enforcement and eventually computer forensics. He was working as an investigator for an online child pornography taskforce when he got busted for hoarding the very contraband he was responsible for policing. When I told Jay that his circumstances were ironic, he laughed. He said that having access to the “goods” aroused an interest, and that even cops can be perverts. I was referring however to the other irony: as an assassin, killing once made Jay a hero; porn turned him into a criminal.

Incidentally our fitness instructor Gabe was a sniper in the marines. He arrived to class donning a shapely King Tut beard and yellowing tank that suggested an unassumingly yet undoubtedly fit body. Gabe too is a sex offender.

“Time to warm up, dickheads!”

“He means comrades,” Jay said.

Across the gym the West Texans were already in the throes of their workout, performing mountain climbers in tidy military formation, legs synchronized and kicking like angry pistons. Their instructor was a compact Mexican with tortoiseshell abs and a hard, menacing ass like a Brahman bull’s. Gabe had us gather around him and start with jumping jacks.

Earlier I had jokingly asked Jay who the weakest link in the class was, so that I might stand beside the poor slob to make myself look better. But after a modest five-minute warm up of jumping jacks, leg kicks, and hammer throws, I realized that poor slob was me. Light-headed and nauseous, I wondered if anyone would notice if I were to grapple along the wall toward the door and slip from the building. My indolence was shameful.

“Line up, assholes!” Gabe cried. “Get ready for bear crawls!”

I say I was the weakest link in the class, but this isn’t entirely true. As the workout progressed, I saw that in a group of geriatrics, overweights, and queers, I was only the fourth least fit. The oldest man trembled on emaciated arms with each push-up. The morbidly obese man they called Gene looked one squat away from death. And young, scrawny gay Allen was clearly doing only half the reps. Gabe left the senior alone and concentrated on terrorizing the others. “Allen, get your dick out of the dirt!” “Move it, Gene, you fat fuck!” Being the new student, Gabe spared me his heckling. Instead he encouraged me, which was far worst. I would rather have had expletives hurled at me and been called a lazy sonofabitch and worthless sack of shit than be cheered for my pathetic efforts. Dragging my limp body across the gym floor, slipping in puddles of sweat and blood blood! my god! who’s bleeding? I could see in my burning peripheral Gabe’s tennis shoes tracking my progress, could hear him shouting at the others: “This is what I want to see! This is the kind of effort I expect from you pussies!” At the halfcourt I collapsed onto my side. Across the gym the West Texans were swooping into dive bombers, bay doors gaping, engines gunning. I mopped the sweat from my eyes and looked up to see Gene standing above me, one hand outstretched, the other pulling his shorts out of his ass. I shooed him away.

“I’ll fine,” I said.

Bear crawls were preceded by gators, followed by dirty dogs, frog hops, scorpions, and inchworms. Then, having exhausted the animal kingdom, Gabe wheeled out a cart of medicine balls and instructed us dickheads to shoot them up against the gym wall. I had a bad experience with a medicine ball once. In Mississippi I got socked in the face with one during an abdominals class. It was my first ever bloodied lip. It was also the first and only time physical harm has ever come to me in prison, and, strangely, it came not at the hands of a yard brute as I had long expected and feared but from six pounds of airborne sand.

Sand, it turns out, is quite heavy. Moreover it is a dead and unsympathetic weight, one as old and unyielding as the earth itself. Through numerous reps we shouldered this ancient burden, heaving it against the wall and catching it in a squat, running in place with it pressed to our chests and raised above our heads, with Gabe all the while hollering insults, demanding we gallop faster, lift our arms higher “Higher, assholes!” I fixed my gaze on the flaming orb suspended above me. The gym’s fluorescents had turned my medicine ball into a solar eclipse, a most perfect black void ringed in fire. Its twilight cooled my face and stilled my breathing. The pain in my arms and in my thighs ebbed momentarily under the influence of its gravity. For a few hushed seconds all raggedness the moldering roads, broken panes, toppled cones, leaky roof everything broken and unloved diminished to a speck no brighter than a terrestrial satellite. It’s no wonder so many men spend their bids in the gym.

The last few minutes of class were reserved for abdominals. What pleasure, after all that flailing, to lie across the grit and filth of the hardwood floor. But leisurely situps and crunches wouldn’t suffice for Gabe. He preferred instead bicycles and sprints and jacks, moves that are challenging enough in a vertical position and made nearly impossible when lying flat. He saved planks for last.

“I swear to God,” Gabe said, “if I see any one of you fuckers touch his knees to the ground, you’ll all be doing push-ups.”

The West Texans meanwhile had wrapped up their workout and were beginning to file out of the gym, stepping over our rigid bodies with looks on their faces that, had I looked up, might surely have registered disgust.

“Allen, get your ass out of the air!”

Allen stiffened beside me. His arms quivered and the cords in his neck bulged.

“Ten seconds! Don’t you quit!”

Across from me Jay stared straight down, jaw clenched, nose inches from the ground. Gene’s belly barely cleared the floor.

“Five seconds!”

Allen crumpled. Gabe, spitting and snarling, leapt to his feet. We would pay, he cried, the whole sorry lot of us would pay, with push-ups, one for each position of every letter in Allen’s name. Allen was too exhausted to show remorse or shame, and we his comrades, his fellow dickheads, sympathized too much to begrudge him. Without complaint we assumed position and paid our penance. And when Allen was the last man left struggling on the floor, we returned to the court, dropped beside him, and finished the last of his forty-four push-ups together.

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Seasonal Doldrums

Fall has arrived. Mornings have cooled. In the prison parking lot the wind turbine, which had languished all the hot summer long, is spinning once again, slowly, idly, its white metallic petals dipping and fluttering in sympathy with the new season. In the gym tattered bulletins warning of heat exhaustion have been replaced with fliers advertising upcoming fall fitness classes. There’s a class on nutrition and a class on reading and understanding food labels. Yoga is held in the mornings and calisthenics in the evenings: “Sign up today. Leave prison better than when you came in.”

Seasonal provisions were issued this past week. The line to pick up jackets and winter blankets dribbled out the Laundry Department’s doors and wound around the building. The jackets smelled musty after spending seven months in storage. Some had missing buttons or jammed zippers. Others had slits in their linings, secret pockets put there by last year’s owners for smuggling onions out of the chow hall. We were told to take whatever we were given; exchanges and repairs could be made the following week. I recall in Mississippi years ago a Mexican man had tried to exchange his jacket there on the spot. He held out the diminutive garment for the officer’s consideration, but the CO shook his head. “You can pick up a new one next week.” The man, who clearly spoke no English, again extended the coat to the officer. “Next week!” the CO shouted, as though the man’s problem wasn’t a language barrier but deafness. “Can’t you see you’re holding up my line?” Those of us in line felt embarrassed for the Mexican, but mostly we were annoyed for having to wait. Dumb wetback. When the man had still not ceased holding out the ridiculous jacket, the CO tore it from his hand and flung it back into the bin. “Go on! Leave! Get the hell out of here!” The Mexican walked away with no coat at all. This year my jacket is stained at the cuffs and a bit long in the arms, but otherwise it’s in fine condition.

They say despite longer days the fall and winter months go by quickest, our attentions sated by football and gambling and long bouts of hibernatory sleep. Jack predicts this coming winter will have in store considerable carnage, as he believes, contrary to popular opinion, it isn’t summer’s heat but winter’s claustrophobia that ignites men’s passions. Sleet storms and freak fog cause frequent lockdowns during the cooler months. Cooped up against the elements, inmates tend to get a little itchy around the collar. Disagreements arise; fights break out. Jack points to this past summer’s relative calm as proof that we’re due for upset.

Looking back it’s true the outgoing summer was a quiet one. Perhaps the relentless heat knocked the fight out of us, as it did the wind turbine. We had only one upper-body check all season. Having spotted a black eye or bit of blood, the officers had every inmate line up and remove his shirt to check for cuts or bruises that might implicate others in a scuffle. Another minor incident involved a deaf man, whose inquisitive mole-like face pleads to be hit. The chow hall was packed that afternoon, and for want of a seat the deaf man, a sex offender, sat down at a table designated for affiliated whites. Affiliated whites do not take kindly to sex offenders, especially one who so flagrantly violates the established order: dope slingers do not sit with perverts; fraudsters do not mix with pedophiles; murderers do not associate with child molesters. One of the whites said something to this effect, though it’s doubtful the deaf man heard him. When he refused to budge from his seat the white man set down his fork, reared back his hand, and slapped the mute open-handed across his soft, searching face. The tiny coiled wire of his implant trembled above his left ear. In another incident, whether because of a personal beef or simply because he is an eager target, a black inmate tossed the deaf man’s food in the trash while he was away refilling his drink.

But it was a quiet summer. Few men were placed on suicide watch, and only one actually attempted to end his life. He tore a strip of fabric from his bed sheet and strung himself up in the showers. By the time the CO cut him down his face was purple. I was called to observe him when he returned from the outside hospital. He spent half my shift complaining doggedly that his breakfast didn’t come with coffee. “Yesterday morning you gave me cereal and coffee. What happened to the cereal and coffee?” The nurse explained she had no control over what the kitchen sent him for his meals; he could either eat his breakfast or refuse it. “But that’s not breakfast! That’s a bologna sandwich!” he cried. “Unbelievable! No cereal or coffee!”

Two days after his dismissal, I saw the man in the chow hall at dinner. He set down his tray across from me. In training we’re taught to be discreet and to never seek out former watch participants unless invited, and so the man and I ate our meatloaf in silence, neither of us acknowledging the other.

I expect I’ll be called to duty more often in the coming months, as depression seems prevalent around the holidays. Bailey has twice been called to Psychology for having made worrisome remarks over the phone to his wife, or soon-to-be ex-wife; she has filed for divorce. She says she can’t take it—the mortgage, the car payment, his absence, raising their youngest daughter alone. And yet at the same time she is leaving him, she says she cannot be without him. “She pulls me in different directions,” Bailey said. “She loves me but wants to divorce me. She says we can still be friends.” He admitted that in his frustration he might have said some things to raise the concerns of the administration, who regularly monitor phone calls, statements such as “I can’t take this anymore” and “something has to give.” I told Bailey not to worry. Should the psychologists ever take his fatalistic outbursts to heart, suicide watch isn’t so bad. The holding cell is quiet, peaceful. He might enjoy it. And I could use the $6.60 compensation.

“I’d even consider splitting it with you,” I said. “You could buy yourself a box of cupcakes from the commissary. You’re looking too thin these days.”

Bailey laughed. A few months ago he joined a boot camp fitness class for the overweight and medically unsound. He’s reenrolled for the fall session, committing himself to another two months of high-intensity cardio and weight training, five days a week. Exercise might be just the ticket for beating these seasonal doldrums. But while Bailey has lost considerable weight and his diabetes is under control, rather than appearing fresh and svelte he looks old and shrunken, like a dark, shriveled balloon on New Year’s morning. I asked him a second time if he was okay.

“I’ll make it,” he said. “What choice do we have?”

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The national food menu is scheduled to change next month, as it does every fall. The men who’ve been down for a dime still remember the days before a national menu was instituted when it was left to each federal prison to decide what food it served its inmates. To think of all those bologna sandwiches! Now all federal inmates are more or less guaranteed a 2000-calorie diet with fresh fruit and even heart-healthy and no-flesh options. Despite a uniform menu, food quality still varies from prison to prison. The food here in West Texas is generally much tastier than that in Mississippi. There the rice was often undercooked and the only seasonings in the beans were rocks and grit. I’m lucky to have escaped with my teeth intact. I once found an arrowhead in my black beans.

Jack got his hands on a copy of the new menu. Many of yesteryear’s beef dishes such as the enchilada casserole and meatball sub have been replaced with leaner, cheaper poultry. To appease the black Muslim population, pork has been eradicated from the menu entirely. New entrées include chicken tacos, fish tacos, and baked ziti. The baked ziti, Jack says, will be as equally bastardized as the chicken parmesan, which for years has never once come with cheese of any kind or even tomato sauce. Also new to the menu is a turkey burger served twice a month in addition to the beef burger which has long been the anchor of every Wednesday lunch. For those inmates who facetiously count the remainder of their bids in hamburgers, their sentences come October will increase by half.

Mrs. Eller had us devise menus of our own in Food Service Management. She said that everyone, not just those entering the food service industry, should know how to plan and budget their meals. She gave each student a sheet of paper with fourteen blank boxes and told us to work out two weeks’ worth of meals for a family of four on a $400 budget.

It isn’t difficult for a classroom of incarcerated men to fill fourteen boxes with foods they wish to eat. We could have filled a hundred boxes, entire calendars, with the dishes we miss most. Fried chicken and biscuits. Shrimp jambalaya. Carne asada. Broccoli-cheese casserole. Red beans and rice with corn pone. Mrs. Eller tried reining us in by gently recommending we take nutrition into consideration. The hypocrite! She with her notorious sweet tooth! This past week, at her beckoning, we churned homemade ice cream, baked chocolate chip cookies, and prepared three kinds of cream pies—chocolate, coconut, and Key lime. One poor diabetic complaining of lightheadedness had to be escorted to Medical. Surely Mrs. Eller could forgive us our gastronomic enthusiasm. We continued filling in boxes unfazed. Pork tamales for breakfast. Barbacoa served two nights a week. Cobbler served after every meal. We gave no thought to whether dishes paired well with one another. We gave not a damn for repurposing leftovers (there would be none). We said to hell with the perils of red meat. The national menu may prescribe turkey burgers, but our hearts cry for mother’s beef tips and gravy.

Determining the cost of groceries proved more challenging. It’s been years since any of us have stepped foot inside a grocery store. Mrs. Eller had a solution. She brought in a stack of old newspapers and had us scour the supermarket inserts for prices. What strange and colorful artifacts these fliers were, like something unearthed from the rubble of a long forgotten civilization. I recalled reading somewhere that if our society were to collapse and its remains discovered by a future people, they might infer upon excavating our landfills that we ate an inordinate amount of hot dogs. Beneath every rock, behold, a mummified frankfurter. Laced with so many preservatives they’d be about the only remaining evidence of our diet. Thumbing through the SuperSavers, I wondered, if all foods were as enduring as the hot dog, what our forbearers might make of a society that offers its citizens six varieties of milk in three different flavors. What might they say of a nation where the Greek yogurt comes pre-measured in 100-calorie-count cups; where an entire day’s allotment of protein can be satisfied with one indulgent chocolate shake; where the turkey bacon comes pre-cooked and ready-to-heat; where the chicken comes sliced, deboned, and marinated and, for those especially pressed for time, fully-cooked, seasoned, and shredded; where the ketchup is organic; where the cheese comes condensed and canned; where the broccoli comes chopped, packaged, and frozen, the stalks removed and leaves stripped leaving perfectly uniform florets that look as if they were cast from identical molds; where the green beans are extra fine and the snap peas premium; where the red and white quinoa comes in its own microwavable pouch and steams in only two minutes, and the rice with poblano strips and corn nibs in just three minutes more; where the snow crab is wild-caught for freshness and the Atlantic salmon farm-raised for quality (can it still be called Atlantic if it was raised on a farm?); where the immortal hot dog comes bun-length; and where the best thing since sliced bread is crustless bread.

These people must have really had their shit together, they might say. What an industrious and bustling society! So busy and time-strapped, they could afford to pay more for less bread at the convenience of having those impertinent crusts removed.

With ink-stained fingers we combed the food pantries of that capable civilization to which we once belonged. “Does anybody see chorizo?” “Where are the sweet potatoes?” “Has anyone found skirt steak?” The leaflets were less useful than presumed, their offerings outstripped by our vast food fantasies. What items could be found had their prices either obscured by savings or confounded by packaged deals, so that the price of kielbasa could not be extracted from that of baked beans. Mrs. Eller told us to do the best we could, to go by what we remember. But even if we could remember what we paid for a loaf of bread ten years ago, have our families not remarked in letters and in phone conversations on the rising cost of living? We might have paid their complaints more attention, but prices of fuel and food mean little to inmates who are neither mobile or self-sustaining.

“How much are tomatoes?” “What does a gallon of milk cost?” “Is four dollars too much for a pound of shrimp?”

Lugo sat back in his chair, arms folded across his belly, rattling off prices down to the penny. One student asked him the cost of ground beef. Assuming a 20-80 fat-to-lean ratio, Lugo answered $3.99 per pound. Another man asked him how much for a dozen eggs.

“Large, extra large, or jumbo?”

The man specified large.

“Make that free-range,” I added, throwing him a curve.

Lugo whistled. “That’s gonna cost you extra—$4.10.”

Others in the class piped up calling for the price of fresh asparagus, pork tenderloin, Yukon Golds. Lugo named every price with utter conviction. I asked him how long he’s been down. He said seven years.

“Don’t you think these prices might have changed since the last time you were on the street?”

Lugo tilted his head. “Maybe not so much.”

A man who had planned tacos for a Sunday barbecue asked Lugo for the price of lingua. Lugo didn’t hesitate, didn’t even bat an eye, before coming out with fifteen dollars.

“But you can save money,” he added, “by buying the whole head for twenty.”

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The letter came on a Tuesday. Joe didn’t even wait for the rest of the mail to be passed out before retreating from the room with the envelope in his hand. It was thinner than I had expected. Like with a college admission response, I took brevity as a bad sign. Joe sat down on Willy’s bed and without ceremony tore the staple from the envelope and removed two sheets of typed correspondence. After a moment’s regard he flung himself sideways and head-butted Willy in the ribs.

“One fifty-one!” he cried. “One hundred fifty-one months, down from 216!” His commutation had been granted.

Joe wallowed on Willy’s bed, waving the letter like a winning lottery ticket and mussing up the sheets. He flashed the papers to the small crowd that had gathered, so we could see the numbers for ourselves. None of the men explicitly offered their congratulations, but they grinned hard and bobbed their heads a lot, which suited Joe fine; he was too delirious with joy to either notice or care. Someone asked by how many years exactly had Joe’s sentence been reduced. Joe himself didn’t know. Contrary to Hollywood’s depictions of the justice system, prison terms are handed down not in years but, rather anticlimactically, in months. Someone (not Joe) did the math and arrived at a conclusive figure. The court had knocked five years and five months off Joe’s sentence. Joe was even more ecstatic.

“When are we going to celebrate?” he asked once the crowd had gone. I turned from where I’d been probing my ears with tweezers in the mirror stuck to my locker. The circumstances of my own bondage unchanged, I’d resumed my quiet battle with ear hair.

“We can celebrate later,” I said. My eyes shifted to Willy still with his hands in his lap. “We’ll celebrate when Willy’s relief comes.”

In his excitement Joe had forgotten it was only two months ago that his friend had received his own letter from the court, the second of two such letters, stating in characteristically unfeeling legalese that Willy did not qualify for commutation. Joe sobered and smoothed the rumpled sheets. He turned to his friend and offered that he too would surely be granted relief soon.

“Very soon,” I lied. “We’ll all be celebrating real soon.”

The next day Joe awoke early and hit the track. He walked for two hours and returned sweaty, pink-faced, and chipper; his enthusiasm for physical renewal lasted almost a week. Willy meanwhile grew despondent, even more so than when he’d received his last rejection. He began sleeping through lunch, napping during the day, snacking late into the night. His commissary purchases became increasingly junky. One haul turned up fig bars, vanilla wafers, barbecue chips, pork rinds, ten Snickers (the limit), and two royal-blue bottles of milk of magnesia.

Joe sympathetically tempered his joy. He allowed himself to become Willy’s sounding board and listened for hours as his friend, swigging milk of magnesia from the bottle, unloaded every gaudy injustice of his criminal case—the bad plea deal, the inflated quantity of dope, the rat-friends who sold him out. Joe listened patiently, tutting in the appropriate places. He suggested to Willy that he apply for commutation again but under the newest reform law, the amendment to which Joe himself applied. Willy demurred; the amendment pertains only to nonviolent drug offenses and his case, while not explicitly violent, involved gun possession. Still Joe urged his friend to give it a shot, file the paperwork. He also suggested he include with the forms a heartfelt plea to the judge for mercy. This is where I came in.

Months ago when Joe applied for relief he submitted with his application a similar letter, which I had helped write. He seemed to believe it had an impact on the judge. I’m not so sure. Likely the judge, who undoubtedly receives many such letters, followed his own reasoning and complex arithmetic, totaling assets from one column, deducting deficits from the other, adjusting for the phase of the moon. Joe’s commutation response offered no hint as to what these formulas might be or how the decision to grant reprieve was reached. My own judge gave no explanation for why he settled on 144 months. Why not 168 months—14 years? Or 192 months—16 years? Or the guidelines‘ recommended 228 months—19 years? Nobody knows how these things really work. Even those of us who have mired in the system’s cogs are no more wiser to its inner workings. Justice is a black art practiced by black-robed men; the mysteries of their alchemy terrify us.

Nevertheless I agreed to write Willy’s letter. He and Joe conferred and together they penned a rough draft of what they thought such a letter ought to say. I tried not to grimace at their effort: Now, Your Honor, I’m not saying I didn’t commit a crime, but I can’t help but feel I was a scapegoat for the simple fact that I’m serving a 30-year sentence for my codefendants’ going home free.

“I’m not sure this is what the judge wants to hear,” I said looking up from the crinkled sheet.

“Change it up however you need to,” Joe said. “Just, you know, use big words; make it sound good.”

I recall my lawyer giving me similar advice when he told me I’d be asked to make a statement at sentencing. There were two other cases on the docket that afternoon, a probation violation and a petty fraud crime. One by one we the defendants were called before the court, and the judge asked us what we had to say for ourselves. With hands clasped and heads lowered, the two men before me elucidated at length on matters of responsibility and righting wrongs and second chances. The judge saved my case for last. The speech I’d prepared and rehearsed the night before was identical to the other men’s. Regardless, my fanciful apology went unrecited. As soon as I opened my mouth I collapsed into racking sobs. My shoulders heaved, my nose ran. The judge shifted uncomfortably, perhaps impatiently, in his chair. So unintelligible was my blubbering I wondered what if anything the court reporter had been able to transcribe.

The prosecutor was unmoved. “He’s only sorry because he got caught!” she had hissed, and rightfully so. Our indiscretions and dirty misdeeds don’t much bother us until they’re exposed to the light of public scrutiny. We learn what is acceptable not by peering inward but by looking outward, and only then, after consequence, does remorse follow.

Among my regrets: I regret (selfishly) all that I lost—my career, my relationship, my financial security and animal comforts. I regret (selfishly still) all the time I wasted—years burned away in prison, 144 months of ash heaped atop the ash of hundreds of hours more spent collecting pictures and wiping my seed from the floor—that might have been put toward a more industrious cause. I regret hurting my family. I regret that my mother cannot bear to visit me.

And what of the victims, that dimly-lit and fathomless crowd? I am cowardly grateful for the miles of ethernet that distanced us. I will never understand precisely what role I played in their suffering, and I don’t want to. I’ve found reasons enough to change.

I dreaded giving Willy the revised letter. After cutting the bit about being a scapegoat, and after nixing the mention of his parents’ deaths and the references to God, there was hardly anything left of his original appeal. I began from scratch, and in doing so put words in Willy’s mouth he might not have believed, might not have fully considered, or might not want to consider: I contributed nothing. I disappointed my parents. I abandoned my children and family.

Reading my projections, Willy looked like he’d lost sensation in his face. He sat on the edge of his bed holding the letter with only his fingertips.

“I think he just wants to hear you say you fucked up,” I said.

Willy nodded. He read the letter again. “It’s good,” he said quietly. “This’ll work.”

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