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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The Meeting

The speakers called a meeting in the dorm. All inmates of every race and affiliation—blacks, whites, Hispanics, sex offenders, Native Americans, the one Asian—was encouraged to attend. Over a hundred men crowded into the largest of the living quarters, squeezing between bunks and lockers, spilling over into the bathroom, pressing together so tightly that not one of us could turn around without bumping elbows with his neighbor. Behind me a man risked this very maneuver and knocked an alarm clock off a locker and onto the floor. The commotion attracted the gaze of the meeting’s emcee, the Speaker for the Blacks, whose massive head protruded from the dense canopy of bunk beds at the center of the room like an herbivorous dinosaur’s. I’m convinced size is a prerequisite to being elected speaker. They are all giants, Gullivers among Lilliputians. The one exception is the Mexican Speaker. Victims of cold immutable genetics, the Mexicans were forced to waive the height requirement. They might have chosen Peña as their representative, who is, at six-foot-three, the outlier among his race. But Peña is serving an eight-year bid for child pornography, thus the sex offenders claimed him for themselves.

The alarm clock righted, the room settled, the Black Speaker opened the meeting with a recap of events past. Two weeks ago renovations began on the ailing dormitories, displacing inmates and causing massive reshuffling and overcrowding. Our own dorm almost doubled in load. Space is tight, tensions are high (particularly among the blacks and Mexicans). And so in formalizing the facts of our weary existence, the Speaker arrived at the basis for the meeting, which was to reiterate old house rules and establish new ones in an aim to ease friction.

“The first thing—”

The Speaker paused. Beyond the locked door the keys of the law jangled. The room stiffened. Organizing is illegal. The Speaker waited for the officer to pass before continuing.

“The first thing we need to address,” he said, “is the noise. I’m speaking especially about the late-night talking and card playing at the ironing board.”

Imperceptibly, all eyes shifted to the Mexicans. I leaned into Jack’s ear. “I hope someone’s translating this.”

“Now, nobody likes to be woken up while they’re trying to sleep. We’ve got guys complaining about the noise as far away as the back of the room.” The back of the room nodded. “If we have to live with one another, we have to learn to respect one another. When the lights go out, we go out.”

Jack stood in front of me with his arms crossed. He hates these meetings, hates prison politics—the alliances, the frivolousness, the self-importance. He resents speakers and reps and shot callers who speak on behalf of others. He sees gangs and affiliations as bullies slinging around their collective weight while playing refuge to the weak and stupid who would, on their own, amount to nothing for all their lack of sense and respect.

Respect: the only law among the lawless.

“Now, about the shitters,” the Speaker said. “Historically the first two stalls have been pissers and the other four shitters. But with all the newcomers and overcrowding and such, the line to take a shit has been out the door. We’ve decided to change this. From now on the first stall will be for pissing and the rest for shitting. We’ve added one more shitter, you see.”

The crowd murmured approvingly.

“Speaking of the bathroom,” the Speaker continued, “this pissing on the floor needs to stop. If your dick can’t reach the urinal, sit on the toilet. Now, I hear some of you laughing in the back. I’m not trying to be funny. There’s no excuse for that stuff. It’s disgusting, and it isn’t right that these orderlies—your fellow men—have to mop up your mess.”

Jack, whose job it is to clean the bathroom, nodded vigorously.

“This next problem isn’t directed toward the newcomers necessarily; we’ve been having this issue since before you all got here. But to be fair, I think now would be a good time to remind everyone that toilet paper does not belong in the urinals. That shit don’t flush.”

Jack has complained of men throwing toilet paper, sweetener packets, and other trash in the urinals. He suspects the Mexicans.

“Toilet paper goes in the toilet; not in the urinals, not on the floors, not in the sinks. This is our home. We need to treat our home and each other with respect.” The Speaker took a breath. “Now,” he said. “About the showers.”

The crowd shifted from one foot to the other. The showers have long been a contentious issue. Only four serviceable stalls exist in a dorm of over a hundred men. It was a disagreement over the showers that kicked off the riot years ago between the blacks and Mexicans. Someone was accused of jumping the line. A fight erupted and spread across the compound like a flame set to dry brush. Shitters and pissers aside, the showers were the crux of the meeting.

“From now on,” the Speaker said, “there’ll be no more saving places in line. You’re only in line when you’re standing in line.”

The Speaker swiveled his great head between all four corners of the room. The men said nothing.

“And I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t take me no forty minutes to shower. I understand some of you like to shave and wash your clothes in there and whatnot. But we’ve got too many men and not enough stalls to be doing that. Let’s try to limit ourselves to ten minutes. I think ten minutes is long enough to get cleaned up, don’t you?”

A Mexican man near the ironing board raised his hand to object. Still sore from having been pinned the source of late-night noisemaking and seeing the shower stipulations as yet another subtle accusation, the man said to the Speaker, by way of a translator, that he didn’t see why he shouldn’t be allowed to wash his clothes, or do anything else in the shower for that matter, so long as he finished within the allotted ten minutes.

The Speaker nodded sympathetically. Yes, he agreed. A perfectly valid point. What a man does in the shower is his own business. And then, sensitive to the frustrated histories between his and his dissenter’s respective races and aware also of an inmate’s natural prickliness towards authority, the Speaker softened his tone and added diplomatically that the rules, argued and agreed upon by all the speakers, were not meant to “come down” on anybody but to ensure a smooth and peaceable coexistence under these less-than-desirable circumstances.

The Mexican, buoyant from having his voice heard, pressed on. And another thing, he added. He didn’t appreciate the guys outside the showers playing clock and chiming out the minutes. He didn’t like to be rushed and he was perfectly capable, thank you, of telling time.

“Yes, of course,” said the Speaker. “That’s all in fun, I’m sure. At any rate, remember, men—respect gets respect.”

In the days following the meeting, relations in the dorm improved. People said “excuse me” and “thank you” and held doors for one another. The bathrooms were kept reasonably clean, and the line to the showers shortened. The Mexicans put away their card games at lights out. Jack said it wouldn’t last, and it didn’t. When the sting of the switch fades, old habits return. It wasn’t but a week before the litter piled back up on the bathroom floor and in the urinals. Nighttime merrymaking resumed. Peña, the Speaker for the Sex Offenders, was called on to confront one of his constituents for having spent an hour in the shower, a scandal that led to hours of gleeful speculation into what obscenely terrible things the man might have been doing to himself. And Jack, who’s now considering a job change, pledged bodily harm to whomever has been leaving behind Ramen and other bits of food in the bathroom sinks.

He suspects, of course, the Mexicans.

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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.


“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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Average Joe

The suits from Region came down this month for inspection prompting a slew of renovations and maintenance. The dorms were repainted, the flower beds weeded, the lawns trimmed. That hole in the wall in the rec center was finally patched. In the chow hall the suits milled about the perimeter of the room like museum patrons, hands clasped, their dark expensive shoes reflecting in the freshly waxed floor. I’ve noticed government employees have a particular smell, that of soap and drugstore cologne. I wonder if inmates have a smell.

“Isn’t the food supposed to be better when Region is here?” Jack sniffed at his tomato-and-rice soup and set his spoon down. “I feel sorry for those guys at El Reno. As much hassle as we go through when Region comes to town, imagine what hell those poor bastards went through preparing for the president’s visit. The law must have torn that place apart, not a nail file or shoestring they didn’t confiscate. And even then they kept that prison locked down. I guarantee you not one inmate got within twenty feet of Obama, except the ones they handpicked.”

In an article published the next day detailing the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to a federal prison, the accompanying photo captured Obama speaking with a corrections officer in a remarkably tidy and utterly empty cell block.

“The whole thing’s a publicity stunt,” Jack said. “He’s just groping for some legacy he can leave behind before his term is up.”

Joe is more optimistic. He’s been waiting to hear from the courts whether he qualifies for a sentence reduction under last year’s drug reform legislation. He sees President Obama’s visit to El Reno as a sign that luck is on his side and that even more relief is in the pipeline. He talks about the possibility of increased “good conduct time” and of the federal government bringing back parole, rumors which have been circulating for years. The stress of waiting is killing him. All he can do is worry. He’s abandoned efforts to get into shape and instead spends his days sprawled across the empty bunk below mine eating Little Debbie snack cakes and reading crime fiction and Rolling Stone. Last night he tossed me a cupcake (he hates to eat alone) and asked me more questions about hacking.

“Have you ever heard of an onion router?”

Joe thinks I’m in prison for computer fraud. He thinks I’m some superstar hacker responsible for toppling major corporations. I never encouraged quite so fantastic a lie, but neither did I dispel it. One only needs to throw around a few technical terms like “IP masking” and “blowfish encryption” to convince the layperson he’s an expert. A moderate knowledge of computers is necessary however to satisfy the curiosities of my fellow felons. Men have asked me how to erase their Internet history, how to conceal their identities online, and how to make sure a deleted file really is deleted. Like Joe, these men are already plotting their next scheme.

Often when he grills me about cryptology and the “dark web,” I try to steer Joe toward the possibility of going straight. I asked him why is he so eager for prison reform and winning an early release if he only plans to entangle himself in some other criminal venture—running a brothel, growing hydroponic weed, exporting dope overseas. Now he’s turned his attention to computer fraud. He said I didn’t understand. He said I’d never had a taste of the money, the cars, the houses, the women.

“I can’t go back to being just some average motherfucker,” he said. “I can’t be just an average joe.”

That same week as his visit to El Reno, Obama granted clemency to forty-six nonviolent drug offenders, bringing the total number of commutations under his presidency to eighty-nine. Joe saw this as more evidence that further relief is on the way. He walked into the dorm waving a list of the forty-six men and women, saying, “It’s for real. Something’s gonna happen. Obama’s gonna do something.” Jack pointed out that those released had already served the majority of their lengthy sentences. “Big deal,” he said. “What’s getting out three years early when you’ve already served seventeen? A publicity stunt! All of these people he released were charged with crack cocaine. And they’re black. How does this help me?”

I’m inclined to agree with Jack’s skepticism. He and I have made amends with our time. We’ve spent years adjusting our expectations, honing our routines. That release date which once seemed immeasurable has solidified itself as a permanent fixture in our minds, like a moon, shining and certain. We’ve come too far for false hopes. Look at Joe: sleeping till ten, drinking warm sodas all afternoon, waving around that commutation list as if it were a Polaroid on which his own name might resolve. Jack said even if more reform were passed such relief would likely not affect us, as recent reforms have focused on reducing sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Justice is cyclical, like fashion. The war on drugs has grown tiresome and expensive, and locking up blacks is no longer politically in vogue.

“The big thing now is porn,” Jack said.

I looked away.

“That stuff can be real addictive you know.”

The sex offender population here is indeed growing. Their numbers have swelled so much in recent months that the inmates called a meeting to redraw the boundaries in the chow hall. The whites gave up eight of their tables to accommodate the influx of sex offenders. If more sentencing reform were to pass, Jack said he’d be surprised if it helps any of these men. No congressperson would ever support a bill that gets pedophiles and murderers out of prison quicker. Ironically it is these loathsome men who have the lowest recidivism rates and would, if released, stand the better chance of staying out of prison.

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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.

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Uncle Pennybags

My brother sent me a Get Out of Jail Free card in the mail. The copy read, Just in case your birthday celebration gets out of hand!

Mark himself just got out on bond. On that first phone call I made to him after his release he told me how awful the food in county jail had been, how for breakfast they had served him watery oatmeal without salt for seven days, how he was so hungry that by the third day he wolfed down anything they set in front of him, and how he had developed a habit of hoarding for later the apples and oranges that came in his lunches.

“I’ve done that too,” I said.

I showed Joe the Get Out of Jail Free card with its gold embossing of a winged Uncle Pennybags fluttering free from a cage. “Just hand it to the officer at the gate,” I said, “and he’ll let you through.” Joe laughed but pointed out that we’re in prison, not jail, and therefore the card is technically invalid.

Though I urged him not to, Joe insisted on making nachos to celebrate my birthday. He bought a filched tomato and onion off a kitchen worker and had me dice them up along with a pickle to create a salsa. The pickle juice he reserved and added to the secret sauce, which also contained, he was kind enough to share, Velveeta squeeze cheese, Sriracha, and mayo. While I gave the sauce a vigorous shaking, Joe layered our bowls with Doritos, tuna, summer sausage, and mozzarella which he grated with the perforated top of a Comet can. If only such ingenuity and culinary talent could be put toward a legitimate venture, a restaurant or food truck. But Joe’s latest post-prison scheme is to grow weed hydroponically (the brothel idea having been apparently nixed). Jack, who has a green thumb and some experience in the matter, was happy to share some pointers. He recommended that Joe set up shop in a rented house in a remote area and to pay his first and last months’ rent up front to keep the landlord at bay. Then during his first two months’ tenancy, before beginning any production, he should turn on all appliances in the house—stove, lights, AC—and leave them running around the clock so later, when the grow lights are brought online, his electricity bill won’t spike and tip off the police. Jack also said it might be a good idea to line the attic with sheets of steel so that any thermal spy cams flying overhead won’t detect the grow lights’ intense and telltale heat signature.

After layering on the salsa, Joe drizzled the nachos with the road cone-orange secret sauce. He handed me a bowl and a Coke. “Happy twenty-ninth,” he said.

Later that evening I called my brother to thank him for the card.

“Sorry it was late,” Mark said. “It’s been hectic around here, what with the kids and dealing with the realtor.”

After his arrest and subsequent bail, Mark and his wife decided it would be best for them to sell their house and skip town. The small community in which they live was scandalized when it came out that one of their residents had been charged with having sex with a minor. And he a police officer no less! People stared in line at the grocer. Cars slowed in front of the house. On one occasion Mark actually ran into the father of the young girl. Mark was at the police station settling some last detail of his bond when the girl’s father stepped up to the adjacent window. Neither man acknowledged the other. Mark simply looked on, his hand pressed flat against the counter, while the clerk went about futzing with the printer. The machine, which by all accounts had been working fine all morning, had suddenly refused to print Mark’s receipt. The clerk mashed some buttons, peered into the printer’s nether regions (the poor dear admitted she wasn’t very good with computers). Was is a paper jam? A faulty driver? A loose cable? She ducked beneath the desk and clucked at the mess of wires there. In his peripheral Mark observed the girl’s father scribbling his signature across a stack of ominous legal documents, presumably the affidavit and testimonies that would eventually send Mark to prison. The printer meanwhile yawned into life—a loose cable afterall—and proceeded through a slow and rigorous battery of tests and maintenance checks: a realigning of the print head, a cleaning of the nozzle, a priming of the belts, springs, and pulleys. Mark stared ahead, palms sweating. Finally, to confirm the integrity of its labors the printer produced, not a receipt, but a test page, a methodically plotted epistle proudly emblazoned with the manufacturer’s logo and a full-color stock image of a young girl—a girl whose resemblance to the one Mark fingered in his patrol car was only passing—blowing out a forest of birthday candles, her petite blonde head enveloped in a billowing cloud of yellow, cerulean, and magenta balloons, an image specifically selected by the manufacturer to exploit the printer’s impressive color capabilities, its crisp 600 dpi output, its stunning lifelike reproduction of skin tones, which, it should be said, is no easy task when dealing with the subtle hues and transparencies of youthful flesh. Meanwhile the girl’s father (that of the victim, not of the model) continued to condemn with his pen the perpetrator standing at his elbow, whose moist brow had then begun to itch, though Mark dared not scratch, dared not move, for his hands felt as though they rested not on a simple countertop but on the pressure-sensitive detonation switch of a bomb that would, upon so much as a hastily drawn breath, blow himself and the entire building sky-high, which, come to think of it, might have been preferable.

“Ah, here we are,” said the clerk sliding Mark his receipt. He took the document, wished the woman a good day, and fled.

“I have to get out of this town,” Mark said on the phone. “It’s getting to where I can’t pump gas without running into someone.”

“Is the house packed?”

“We still lack the attic and the kids’ toys. Lucy’s got it in her head that we should take the deck. She doesn’t think it’s very fair that we should leave behind a brand new deck that we never had the chance to enjoy. I told her you can’t just rip up a deck and take it with you. For Christ’s sake, it’s flagstone.”

I resisted the urge to ask my brother what he intended to do with my own furniture. Before coming to prison I left in his care several pieces, including the heavy, Italian-made drafting table our father once labored over as a young advertising artist. Instead I asked if he’d heard from his lawyer.

“No, I haven’t heard from anybody.”

“Well, maybe this is a case of no news is good news,” I offered, though he didn’t hear me because just then his three-year-old daughter had begun to cry.

“No,” he continued, putting the phone back to his ear. “The only time I hear from the lawyer is when he’s asking for more money. I don’t know where he pulls these figures from—$15,000 for representation, another five grand per charge.”

“It’s nothing like what we remember from our civics textbooks in high school, is it, Mark. All those pretty diagrams with the legislative and judicial and executive branches of government stacked neatly one on top of the other. Checks and balances. The books never mentioned lawyers, sentencing guidelines, or probation. No mention of a sex offender registry.”

On the other line the girl’s screaming rose to decibels usually associated with murder. Mark seemed not to notice. I read once that mothers are programmed to recognize their children’s cries. I wondered if the inverse is true too, if parents aren’t equally capable of tuning out their children.

“The more I research prison,” Mark said, “the less I understand it.”


“I mean it’s basically a long timeout. They put you in this tiny box and say, ‘Okay, now you wait here.’ And then you sit around on your ass, eating your three meals a day, until the time comes when someone taps you on the shoulder and says, ‘All right, you can leave now.’ It’s bizarre when you think about it.”

Beside the phone, beneath the placard forbidding vandalism, someone had begun to peel back paint from the wall.

“And these sentences they hand out are so arbitrary. You’re basically at the mercy of whatever judge you get. This one cop molested his teenage daughter and got probation.”

The paint was high-gloss, institution gray, a shade whose sole purpose lies in its ability to conceal dirt. It peeled away in large springy patches like dead skin off a sunburn. “Probation, huh?”

“And then I read about this other guy with a charge similar to mine. The girl was sixteen. The judge sentenced him to eight years in the state.”

“That’s not so bad. That’s only—what?—four years served.”

Only four years! I can’t be away from my kids for four years.”

“No, I guess not,” I said. The swatch I’d been working on had grown to the size of a dollar bill. I noticed last week at visitation while my father was feeding bills into the vending machine that the fives are now purple. They looked like foreign currency, like Monopoly money. When had they changed to purple?

“Then again,” Mark said, “probation may just as well be a jail sentence. From what I’ve read online, probation is basically the same as prison.”

“They’re not the same.”

“That’s not what I read. I read probation’s rough. You’re not even allowed to drink when you’re on probation. I mean, how can they possibly expect you not to—”

“Prison is nothing like probation, Mark.” I tucked the phone between my ear and shoulder and began pulling at the paint with both hands as though it were saran wrap. “They aren’t the same at all. Not even close. I’ve been on probation, Mark, back before sentencing. Remember? I had an ankle monitor and a nine o’clock curfew. I know what probation is like, and it’s nothing like prison, okay? Twelve years, Mark. The judge gave me twelve years, for pictures, and life probation on top of that.”

“Well, I read you can probably get that changed—”

“And stop with the research, already. You’re like one of those people who Googles their pimple and walks away convinced he’s dying of cancer. Just relax. It’s out of your hands.”

“Maybe,” Mark said. “But this not knowing is killing me.”

The paint finally snapped off in my hands, knocking me back a step. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Whatever they give you will be far less than what I got.”

I wiped the dry-wall dust from my hands. The line went quiet. Even his little girl had shut up.

“I’m a good father,” he said finally. “I can’t lose my kids.”

“You’re not going to lose them, Mark.”

“It’s not fair, for their sakes. It’s not fair to the kids.”

To the kids who call him Dad. To the girl he laid with. To the boys whose pictures I collected.

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