First World Problems
Kevin Robert Schaeffer was awarded First Place in Fiction in the 2019 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 18, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, BREAK OUT: A 2019 PEN America Prison Writing Awards Celebration.
First World Problems
Monday, March 9th
Better take a seat, Future Self, or have you remembered? Farley died last night. That obnoxious clown, Shots Fired, is banging on his door at some absurd hour hollering down the tier: “You’re too late, coppers! He dead now!” I’m miffed, sure, but groggy enough to roll over and knock back out. I have this crazy, sort of deep-sleep claustrophobic nightmare when I’m back under, too—I know, we agreed on no more dream entries unless they’re especially raunchy, but I think you’ll find this one . . . let’s say, revelatory. I’m on the floor, all crumpled up, and my spirit or whatever raises up out of my body. There I am: a scrawny little shit, looking more worn down than any twenty-something should. And spirit-me starts darting all over the place. Never felt so boxed in before, this sudden, overwhelming need for open space. So I ram against the thin slits of window: impassable. Hurtle across the cell and ram against the door. Try to push under, but there’s all that rolled-up newspaper stuffed there to muffle the block noise. Swoosh up to the vents, but they’re all taped up with cardboard—it’s still March here, on my end, and the heat’s been at full-blast. I’m floating, scrambling. Sheer desperation sets in. So I dive into the porcelain basin of the sink, push with all my strength until I’ve squeezed through the tiny drain holes, and then I’m winding down through miles of plumbing, zooming, gaining momentum, bliss, whatever, until I finally burst out into nothingness.
Wake up for count drenched in sweat. Toilet won’t flush when I take my morning piss. No water in the pipes either. Maintenance? At this hour? Orlin’s fuming, rattling the sink buttons and going on about all the indignities he’s suffered in his life. We can both get testy without our coffee, sure, but Orlin’s on another level. Persecution complex flares up. And to make things worse, he ran out of rolling papers yesterday. Ask him what all that fuss was about last night, but he’s too riled: “Is it too much, as a human being, to get some hot flipping water around here, or haven’t these people heard of a little document called the Constitution of America?!”
Chow runs late, when we’re finally heading out, and I see the police tape all over Farley’s door, one of the bottom tier single cells. Nothing registers. I mean, he wasn’t even in there—gone for almost a week now, up on observation or something. (Unless they would have brought him back after count last night?) Was it . . . last Saturday I’d seen him last? He’d been all ready to stay up for some blaxploitation double feature on TCM Underground, never went to dinner, or breakfast the next day. Figured it was some medical thing, but no one really knew—they were all asking me. “What, you don’t know?” They’d all gawked, incredulous. And sure, F.S., he was basically my . . . best friend? But only best prison friend. You know, nothing too personal, nothing too deep. Don’t even know what he’s in for. Never came up. Mostly, we walked to chow together. Light stuff. Banter. And . . . well, so what if he was my only friend, besides? Who’s even counting? You?
Get caught in the current along the walk to chow, everyone full of speculation about him and the water situation (apparently the whole block’s dry). Up ahead, Shots is setting the scene for all in earshot: the startled demeanor of the bumbling night C.O. as he passed Farley’s door on rounds, the 20-min lapse before Medical strolled briskly—but not too briskly—onto the block, Farley’s body pulled limply into the open. Blood everywhere. Someone pipes: “Sarge told me he cut a hole so big you could fit your whole fist inside,” before I consciously zone them all out. It’s all just action to them, a blip in the routine of an otherwise ho-hum prison day. And anyway, by the time we clear Education and the chapel, turn up toward the chow hall, they all shut up, slow to a stand still: the powder-blue water tower capped with snow on the wooded hill past G-Block, the one that looms over us every day stamped “BENTHAM” in case we ever forget for one freaking second where we all are—that tower’s unleashing a steady white spray from its belly.
Post-breakfast, the announcement bigres across the prison: “The institution is currently under a partial state of emergency. Water usage is hereby suspended. This is not a drill.” A slow trickle of updates all morning: We’re semi-locked down, in a sort of confinement limbo. No classes or programs or activities. No yard or block-out. Most workers won’t report. No visits, no mail. Stay tuned regarding access to basic hydration and sanitation needs. This all really gears Orlin up. He would’ve made a fine proletarian cog about a hundred years ago, primed to wade mindlessly into some subversive fray. After this, his second rant of the day, he rolls a cigarette with a page from the back of his pocket New Testament—“It’s okay,” he justifies, pointing to heaven. “I know how it all ends”—and gets started on his lame fantasy drawings for the day. Meanwhile, I’m keeping tabs on Farley’s door all morning. Maybe someone else get moved in there yesterday and I missed it? Farley could still be up in Medical, or the Hole, or wherever he’d been. Rumors are wrong here all the time—why not this one?
Around 9am, D—- yells over the block P.A. that water would be turned back on for like 5 mins. “Fill your mugs and drop your dumps,” he advises. “Or forever hold ‘em.” What follows is a truly groan-worthy slapstick routine of Orlin and I rushing about the cell, gathering our mugs and bowls and random plastic bags and containers, even my dirty washtub (about 11 qts)—the water cold, and at low pressure, taking precious minutes to fill, and these various receptacles proving challenging (for Orlin at least) to stack and store, water sloshing all over the floor and rugs, bags tipping over or slipping out of hands in transit, our clothes soaked. Then, as I’m more properly tying off bags at the desk, Orlin hangs the curtain. After a silent minute, I tell him to hurry, that I have needs too, but he just gets almost shrill with exasperation—“Don’t talk to me on the toilet!” and wastes the last 90 seconds, grunting and straining away.
Some simple figures, F.S.: Bentham houses approx. 2,200 men, split into East and West sides. Assume about 250 per block, with 5 blocks on the West Side, that’s +/- 1,250. At some point this afternoon, they set up a bank of porta-potties in the zone leading to the yard. A whopping 14, I hear, on either side. 14 into 1,250 = 89 men per toilet. So: If they start running toilets immediately following 1pm count all the way until 9pm count (with a 30 min interlude for 4pm count, and assuming they run optimally, to the last second before these counts, and movement is never otherwise halted, and staff is capable of running them optimally, free if resentment or incompetence, and each of these 89 selflessly takes only the time due to them; and that no one will require more than one visit within the allotted period), how long can each of these 89 adult men indulge for their personal relief of the day?
(Answer = barely 5 mins)
How to describe this odd day? There’s an uneasiness about it. Something’s off. I try working in the new story, but my notes are such a mess and don’t have the focus to organize them. I try to put a dent in 2666, but nothing clicks. I know, F.S., greatness won’t come from shirking our studies, but what can be done? At both lunch and dinner, I find myself instinctively waiting around for Farley, half-expecting him to stride through the tape, all smiles, some snarky comment at the ready. For years, I’d walked to chow alone. Didn’t mind. As an only child, I’m tempered to a certain degree of loneliness. But now, back on my own for the past week after years of walking with Farley, can’t help but feel this all to be some relapse, an unhealthy regression into myself. We’d known each other . . . three years? Maybe doesn’t sound like much, F.S., but that’s, what . . . almost 3,300 meals, 3,300 conversations? Minimum. How many does it take to feel like you finally know someone—to trust? How many books or memories or petty prison policies discussed before you develop a dependence on him? By dinner, we’re all just making a quick trip up and back anyway. Everything’s in styrofoam. And people are so revved and wide-eyed by this point, from the novelty of the day, from the hazy implications of a waterless future, that Farley stops coming up in small talk. Old news, I guess. Or short attention spans.
Don’t even touch the icy, flesh-toned poultry patty. Just lie around all night, watching Pickpocket and most of A Man Escaped, ignoring Orlin’s bellyaching over the subtitles. Usually enjoy the cool repetition of Bresson, the sensitive and over-trusting characters trounced by an unforgiving world, but I’m too distracted today. Maybe I’m getting a cold—or is that just the caffeine withdrawal? By count, it’s obvious our block is burnt on the porta-potties until tomorrow. I wait until I’m sure Orlin’s asleep, then hang the curtain and squat over an empty chip bag. It will still be warm in the morning.
A late-night insight (written by book lamp): To be clear—this is NOT denial. But before I go through the stress and anguish of processing all this—Farley, everything—I’m wondering . . . do I even need to? I mean, prison friendships are by their very nature fugitive, perishable. People disappear here all the time. Without warning. By night or broad daylight. Transferred. Hole-hauled. Released. Or just moved to the opposite side of the prison—a mere 200 yards away, which might as well be Mongolia. Maybe never to be seen again. Or best-case scenario, one or both of us get paroled someday: contact and congregation forbidden. All relationships here are a gamble, investing that most precious of resources: emotional energy. You hatch into a social butterfly yet, F.S.? Have you got the game all figured out? I don’t know how people do it here, putting themselves out there with all that risk of loss. Doesn’t it hurt them? Isn’t it so much easier to stay curled up? Faced inward? And sure, part of me will always be grateful to Farley for lugging me out of that grim, years-long seclusion, but just thinking if, all things considered, it’s not just best and easiest, for my own mental well-being and all, to imagine he’s . . . well, released and free’s a bit too sugary. But moved, maybe? Transferred to be closer to his family? Right. So he moved. He’s good. We’re all good, then.
Tuesday, March 10th
Wake up feeling . . . empty. Glum. Is this what loss feels like, F.S.? Who else have you mourned by now, or did you never weather this one? Have I been writing a figment? Is the future nothing but dry, barren wastes? Parched earth, unpopulated?
Already groggy from the get-go; starting Day Two without that essential coffee bump. Don’t drink it like some of these fiends around here, guzzling entire 4 oz. bags in 2-3 days, but still need it to unmuddle my mushy morning brain. Orlin’s starting to smell. Everything is, really. We’ve been using the cell toilet for #1’s, covering it up with one of my old shirts. They finally call us for porta-potties after breakfast—our first opportunity. More were added overnight, up to maybe 40 now. I’ll spare you the math; it’s just chaos on a grander scale. Freezing out, too. Maybe mid-thirties? Huge lines stuck waiting, no organization. Must have called three blocks at once. And most don’t have their coats either, I’m guessing to make stuffing into the porta-potties a more manageable prospect. So everyone’s shivery, uncaffeinated, and extra-irritable. To think just two weeks ago we were in full blizzard mode here. Still a ton of snow around too—two or three feet, with four-foot banks along the walk from shovelings. Imagine the impact of one last wintry attack at this moment of vulnerability: a true shitstorm.
Anyway, as I’m waiting, one of those holier-than Kooks is rattling off scripture to a rapt disciple: “This has all happened before, you realize, Water into Blood? The Weeping Tower, Brother Farley’s untimely demise—what might we glean from such happenings? Perhaps they are but the first in a series of plagues wrought to sway the Commonwealth into freeing its ill-treated inmate masses from captivity.” Pinch us, F.S.
No one’s really locking in on the block anymore. They’re all just sort of . . . lingering, in the dayroom, on the tiers, griping and commiserating, Laughtrack offering his inexhaustible cackle-commentary. A water cooler has been set up by the C.O.’s desk while I was out, but it’s already dry. No rationing. Great. Especially since Orlin managed to topple most of our receptacles while dinking about in the night, we’re down to my washtub, sitting uncovered since yesterday and infused with tart detergenty undertones. I catch the hazmat crew when they show up to clean Farley’s cell. Rubber gloves, face masks, these thin plastic aprons. One of them carries in a five-gallon jug for the cooler and dumps it, glug glug glug, into a mop bucket. They pull away the tape, set upon the blood. In there awhile, too—premium work, at 51¢ an hour. Dispatched for stabbings, D-Code shower craps, the occasional act of self-murder. Afterwards, Sarge carts up all his stuff. Footlocker of books and papers, laundry bags of faded sweats and sneakers, a records box of food, that shitty, over-priced flat screen. Could his family really sift through such things, stricken with grief, and think: “Our son?” Reminds me: He still had my copies of Notes from Underground and Boethius. And I still have his Las Casas. For a second, I even wonder: Did he leave me something—a note? Would they let me have it if he did?
Just can’t seem to focus on this damn story. Voice is the main problem—it all just ends up sounding like me. And Bolaño’s too dense right now. The whole routine’s just gonna have to wait until things are back to normal. Sorry, posterity. Since everything’s canceled again, figure I’ll dig out some old journals and see how our rosy pal YesterSelf saw things. Oldest entry I can find on Farley is from the Fall of 2012:
“Eat chow with this guy Macilwraith again today, Seems alright, We’ve just been sort of falling in with each other on the walks up for the past few days. Now, don’t get ahead of yourself, F.S. We’re not best buds or anything. But have been thinking about this more, ever since reading that self-help book from the library, Solitudinarians Anonymous, and that one exercise. Er . . . Actually wasn’t gonna tell you about it, but there was this one graphic of some chiseled guy on a desert island called “No Man is an Island” with these little blanks that were supposed to be bridges I guess, and you were supposed to fill in the names of your support system to show yourself how you’re not really as isolated as you think, or something. Well, I sat for hours with it and . . . Nevermind, can’t get too emotional (Lusk’s in the cell right now.) Point is one friend couldn’t hurt, right?”
Here’s one of my favorites, from about two years ago (July 2013):
“Well, F.S., Farley’s officially got himself an arch nemesis: C.O.N—– . Remember how there’s this dress code policy where you always need your brown state shirt on when you’re off the block, even when wearing a jacket that’s buttoned all the way, and the shirt’s not visible? If a tree falls in the woods, and all that? Well, N—– starts pulling aside Farley on our walls to chow, cause Farley always wears his jacket buttoned, and N——’s a real stickler for that stuff and always demands to see a shirt collar or else he’ll burn him for chow. So now, every day before we head up there, Farley’ll triple-check himself in the mirror, make sure his collar’s totally tucked in under his jacket, so N—-’ll pull him over and be denied the satisfaction of a petty bust. His disappointment each time is truly palpable. This might be the single most perfect expression of civil disobedience I’ve ever witnessed.”
Find more than I expected. Seeing him and the other Native Service guys at Drum Circle practice outside the chapel on Monday mornings as I went to pick up commissary, all of them chanting and pounding away. That time he brought me a little bundle of venison from their annual feast. Tons of zingers and book recs. Among all these crinkly pages, I find him. Broken into cubist-like fragments. A graph of subtly shifting moods and prison wear. And yet there’s nothing . . . to make sense of all this. He knew so many people, was personable in a sarcastic, almost dickish way. Was practically . . . spitefully defiant. The type who’d grow out his religiously-exempt hair only to snub shoulder-length restrictions. Who’d max out a sentence just to bleed the state of resources. It’s hard to see his death as anything but a defeat. For him and for all of us. I’ve been struggling to exorcise these clichés from my brain all afternoon, questions I don’t really want to ask myself: What did I miss? Could I have done something more? I mean, I talked to the guy every single day—was I blind?
Guess it’s to be expected, but keep thinking of our own stretch way back in county. Suddenly stalled with that unbearable guilt, the sense of a shrunken world, shame of stripped rights and squandered life. Onset of the Dark Time’s basically inevitable. Mistake was confiding to the counselor. “I’m feeling . . . I don’t know. Sad. And empty. Sad and empty all the time.” “ Are you thinking of hurting yourself or others?” “ . . . No?” Tossed in an observation tank for over a week—10 days, wasn’t it?—just a mattress and a turtle suit and all those dark thoughts swirling around. Poisoning me. Well, lesson learned: Help was no help at all. They just wanted to cover their asses, scribble down all your faults in their Big Book to hold against you later. So stay out of sight, keep your problems to yourself. Maybe things will get tolerable someday. On that last day, a voice through the food-slot: “Feeling better now?” Almost delirious: “Oh yes, so much better! Thank you!” Can’t imagine what pushed Farley to that point. A loss of his own? An illness? Just that crushing recognition that there’s nothing left for you in this day-in-day-out slog? It hurts to think of him locked away up there all last week, severed from contact with family and friends, deprived of prison’s few luxuries; mulling over whatever wrong words or actions that had brought him to such a dead end, and comforted only by the vindictive thought: Just let me out of here for one day, you bastards, one minute, and you’ll never have power over me again.
I expect no answers, No closure. I just hope it was fast.
Slop again. Portions always get smaller, less edible for lockdowns. It’s the styrofoam effect. Everything jumbled about inside, packaged hours in advance. Congealed soy paste and rice, Jell-O, soggy bread. On the walk back, this guy Cray falls in with me. Him and Farley used to play chess on the block all the time. “Man, that’s something about Farley.” “Yea,” I choke. (Get it together.) “Gotta admit, had me tearing up a bit earlier. He was a good dude.” With a side glance, I check to see if he’s being genuine. Seems it, but people are so hard to read here. Honestly catches me off guard that I’m not the only person dealing with this—in a flash, I imagine a friendship with this person, taking up Farley’s former seat, besting him with variations of the Sicilian Defense and back-rank mates. But I’m silent, squash the idea. “Well, be easy,” he says, and moves on. Where did this big knot in my gut come from? Seems like the water’s spraying out on the tower even faster than yesterday, so much waste. Should I call home today? Could that help? It’s been . . . a long time. Trays are tossed all along the banks of snow. And world’s so out of whack wouldn’t surprise me to see flicking across the wall a bunch of these tiny frogs that show up in springtime. “They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people . . . ” Multitudes tunneling out of the snow, smooshed onto the cement in rough outlines of state boot heels. Yea, think I need a nap or something.
Back in the cell, Orlin’s made a big mug of cold instant coffee. Chugging it down, his face says it all: Do not make my mistakes. I sit at the desk, picking at my food and watching the local news. For a whole 30 seconds, they cover “the death of an inmate at SCI-Bentham.” Farley Macilwraith, aged 38, serving 30 years for armed robbery and aggravated assault. I give up on the rice. “Found unresponsive late Sunday night, State Police investigating.” No reference to suicide (or the prison-wide water crisis; for that matter). No personal details at all. Defined for the public, one last time, only by his worst self. I never even knew how old he was, F.S. Gist of this coverage has to be the bleakest thing all day. At ease, folks. Justice has been served. Someone, somewhere, was celebrating.
No more heavy thinking today, Please No TCM, no PBS docs—I let Orlin run the remote. We watch Deep Sea Detox and My Face is Not My Face! and Millennial Matchmaker: Miami-Dade. Finally get the allure of this “reality” stuff: It’s deadening, almost narcotic. Makes you think you’re not actually missing all that much out there. Go to bed expecting Farley to visit me in a dream, the price of all today’s wallowing and reminiscing—I’m thinking some half-man with a wispy genie tail hovering over my bunk, absolving me of any responsibility toward him, “Do not brood on such matters, dear friend,” he’d moan. “Leave me my problems, and worry of your own.” But there’s nothing, just surreal, drought-heavy impressions: scrabbling across polar wastes, clawing up the sides of an empty swimming pool, entombed in the dark of the tower’s bone-dry hull. A long night. Restless.
Wednesday, March 11th
Everything reeks. I reek. Feel . . . subhuman. My skin’s all scummy. Same with my face. Hair’s greasy. Head might cleave open if I have to endure another day without coffee. When I focus on Orlin, I swear I can see a plume of gnats about his head and shoulders, zipping out his unbrushed mouth-hole, alighting in patchy beard growth. He’s out of clean shirts already. No laundry running, obviously, but word is they’ll be shipping some out to another prison at some point. How to describe this disgusting cell? There’s food all over the place, caked on the desk, by the sink. This waft of piss, festering, seeping through the shirt-draped toilet. And sometime last night, Shots or Laughtrack blew our power trying to sting some ramen.
And the block? It’s pure havoc. Lawless. All the unruliest bums and headcases permanently set up on the tiers, out in the dayroom. Never officially declared block-out, but I think the C.O.’s are worried people wouldn’t listen if told to lock in. Defiance hangs heavy. Jungle calls and cries of “Anarchy!” Blasting stereos. Fire alarms constantly tripped from all the smoking in the cells. And the Administration hasn’t seemed too concerned with improving the situation, either. Usually there’s a white shirt or bigwig stopping by the block every few hours—but where are they now? Huddled in an office somewhere, dodging inquiries into the lack of oversight? Instead, condescending memos appear on the scrolling PowerPoint of the block channel, “Use this crisis as an opportunity to practice patience and responsibility.” Talk about glass half-full. And then there’s: “Hydration is happiness. Enjoy the tasty bottled water we’ve provided for you!” Except there are still zero attempts by D—– or anyone else to ration said water. Movement’s been halted all morning from fights breaking out on different blocks over the shortages. Ultimately, I’m forced to stake out the cooler until they bring in the next jug from the storage closet or wherever. No wonder it’s always dry—people hang about with big cereal bags and plastic tubs to take as much as they can carry. When Sarge finally brings the thing in, there’s a mad rush, but I manage to fill our mugs. Back in the cell, Orlin takes his and clinks it against mine: “Absent friends!” Dude’s driving me freaking bonkers, F.S. Has the attention span of a five-year-old. One minute he’s doodling some disproportionate and scantily-clad sorceress, the next tearing pictures of celebrities and bra ads out of magazines to hang in his lockers. And he’s truly filthy, if I failed to mention. More tar than fingers at this point. He’s chainsmoked right through Paul’s epistles.
I hate the block, but need space. Spend half the day sulking in a corner. Flies everywhere. Gotta figure the place hasn’t been cleaned since Friday now, and there’s upwards of 500 styrofoams bagged up right out in the sallyport. The smells are . . . diverse. What’s next? Disease? Boils? Something, something . . . should look that up later, prepare myself. I’m by this little cubby file of pamphlets on taboo prison issues—mental health, sexual assault, victim impact awareness. Thick film of dust over the bunch, probably all stuffed there years ago. There’s one called Self-Termination—Maybe Not! Protecting Yourself or Loved Person from the Woeful Precipice. Wording’s so awkward and stilted, I wonder if maybe it had been translated from some other language. A section inside reads: “Abiding Your Subjugated States: Have you lately undergone a loss of freedoms? Breakdown of personal intimacy-bond? Court of law proceeding and/or crime sentence conviction? All such things and more could inspire the attitude toward self-termination.” The warning signs listed within really help raise my hackles:
Worthlessness, “scuttled hopes,” agitation or aggressive posturing, anxiety, “withdrawal from wholesome interaction orbits,” impulsiveness, pessimism, neglect of appearance, loss of control, fear or suspicion of others, lack of interests, sense of disconnection from self or surroundings, “desperation urges,” edginess
Like they asked someone to describe the average inmate—and yet it didn’t capture Farley at all. Never saw anything close to self-destructive in him, beyond how he’d glaze every meal with salt. “Screw parole,” he’d always kid. “I’m putting all my chips on the widowmaker.” But there had to be something there, right? Hidden by shame, fear, even strength? Buried deep down within the person I knew?
It’s that time. Have you grown tired yet, Future Self, of my detailing every gastric upheaval? Why this sudden, troubling fixation? Simple: This crisis has reduced me to some basic, animalistic foundation. Really, sub-animalistic. Animals can shit anywhere, anytime. Carefree. My needs occupy the entirety of my day, are at the mercy of inept overseers. Will they be met? What to do if they aren’t? I’m fresh out of chip bags. And it’s frustrating, sure. Even as a lowly inmate, my time and thoughts and energy could be so much better spent. Haven’t touched our studies once today, for instance. There’s at least 120 porta-potties on our side now, transforming the entire little zone leading to the yard into a sort of sanitation shanty town. Line creeps along, stalls while the outside workers pump out last night’s dinner. People swap horror stories amid the wait, and sounds like the Special Needs Unit takes the cake. Apparently, some of the D-Codes over there still haven’t comprehended that their toilets are out of order. Filled to the brim, as one man describes it. Another tells of an actual stench-aura that’s encapsulated the entire outer structure of the block. Maybe in a bid to top all this grossness, the Universe sends out a couple kitchen workers, hands unwashed, on their way back to dietary to prep our next meal.
Movement. Up ahead, this guy in a wheelchair is struggling to transition into a porta-potty. “Let’s go, Legs,” from a supervising white shirt. “Gotta line here. And let’s see that collar first . . . Okay.” It’s N—– of course, Farley’s old foe. Lt. N—– now. Checking all those shirts got him a promotion, a hundred grand salary. My blood rises as I pass him. What a douche. Just since yesterday, the insides of the toilet have been completely covered with graffiti: “Kill All Ratz” and crudely-etched black hands, even one that says “FARLEY LIVES!” (Superstition: While I was on the block earlier, they moved some new dope into Farley’s cell. Took less than five mins for Shots & Co. to fill him in on all the recent grisly horrors that went down inside, and the guy freaked, got himself hauled off to the ostensibly less-haunted cells of the Hole.) I’m all backed up. From outside, I hear N—- make a big show of yawning: “Almost quittin’ time. Gonna go home and take a nice . . . long steam-m-my shower!” Pull the pen out my back pocket—why not? Along an open stretch by the door handle, my sole creative impulse of the day: “Lt. N—– eats throbbing convict dong.”
Can just feel my fuse getting shorter all day. Appetite shrivels just from the walk to chow. Everyone’s so nasty, ripe. And stupid. Spouting conspiracies about the tower. How it’s all some elaborate govt. drill. A test. Or how the Superintendent owns a slice of the crapper company. Across the state, attorneys are being commissioned to draw up lawsuits. How could Farley abandon me to such dregs? Was my friendship worth so little? If he couldn’t bear it, how the hell will I? Up ahead, in the chow line, bolted to the cinder blocks; I catch sight of some newly-hung poster—like, newly hung just since breakfast. Before I even read the thing, I process its sunrise imagery, my entire body is reeling with rage. Every part of me instinctively understands that this shitty, lamer mass-produced poster is the Administration’s full and wanting response to Farley’s death, and it pisses me the hell off. Luring the vulnerable toward the system’s stern and inescapable tendrils. “Declare yourself,” it might as well read, “so we can watch you more closely.” Can’t be mad at Farley for any of this. Just can’t. When that darkness steals its way into your brain, twists and corrupts all logic, emotion, nothing seems to matter but stopping it. It’s them I should be mad at. Capital “T” Them. The ones who studied away those dusty pamphlets instructing us to, “Retain vigilance. Report anomalous behavior of your friend or loved person to a certified treatment specialist forthwith.” Put that weight on me, another depressed inmate faced with my own mound of messed-up shit, and boxed in besides by a puerile snitching code, to sell out my only friend, doom him to a deeper misery in observation, from where he’ll be cut loose in a few days regardless. He was their responsibility. Their ward. And isn’t this epidemic ages old by now? It’s 2015, for Pete’s sake! Dropping the ball with the water shit, okay. Benefit of the doubt, maybe they really weren’t prepared for it. Need a little time to get their act together. But what’s their excuse for Farley? All the pamphlets, the self-help books, they all say it’s preventable—so what the hell are they waiting for?! “Hope is real.” That’s the full extent of bullshit on that bullshit poster. And you know, I bet it’s a goddamn sunset.
Don’t even remember the walk back. Don’t have my tray with me either. I’m shaking. In the cell, Orlin’s hand is on my shoulder: “Don’t touch me, you filthy fuck!” “Whoa there, buddy. Easy, here, Paid Peñafort some of those girly clippings to sting us some water. Remember coffee?” Heat. Caffeine. God. “You, um . . . holding up alright, pardner?” Christ, F. S., when was the last time anyone’s asked us that? When was the last time we’ve been shown a simple kindness? I’m too ashamed to respond. Just sit hunched at the desk, sipping my coffee like a weirdo, Orlin isn’t so bad, as cellies go.
Snow: later in the day; some genius makes the connection that all this white stuff covering the compound is, essentially, water in another form. Orders trickle down to let us gather some up, for washing or diluting the cesspools in our toilets. Dozens wade onto the lawn before the blocks scooping up the cleanest patches in their washtubs. A sign at the block entrance reads, “Please do not eat the snow!—Mgmt” Realize I can’t handle another glimpse of that poster in the chow hall today, so I skip dinner. Once Orlin’s gone I hang the curtain and strip completely naked. Block’s cleared out there’s a precious, momentary silence. I grab up a big white handful from my tub. Hard, almost sharp. I’m exhausted. This has been the most exhausting day. Aloud, meekly, in the mirror: “Seven thousand, five hundred, forty-three more days. Please. Please, let it be better tomorrow. Just let it be better, and I can make it.” I rub the snow all over me. Short gasps—it’s cold, obviously. Rough. Turns my skin red and numb. But I scrub every inch. Clean my face, around my eyelids, work it into my matted hair. Along my arms, my chest, my groin, my feet. It hurts. God, it hurts. But for a second, I feel like myself. My old self. Before any of this.
When Orlin’s back, he’s practically gushing: “No more leak!” Parading about the cell: “It’s a Bentham miracle! Leak be gone—we’re saved!” Well, that’s something.
Thursday, March 12th
Today’s mood is: bleh. Nondescript. Disengaged, maybe. Is this our new reality, Future Self? I’m so done with it all. Seems the entire place has been blanketed in acceptance overnight. Everyone’s basically calmed down. Guess they just want to carry on with their work-outs and card games and hustles. Have the porta-potties running like clockwork. Regular cooler deliveries, mugs only and names checked off after each fill-up. Has my life always been dominated by mundane needs? Survival? Back when I wanted to study and write and improve myself—were those all phantom urges? One long, cruel dream? Because none of it seems to matter much anymore. Even these entries have a whiff of futility about them . . . just realizing as I sit here that for March my calendar shows Blake’s depiction of the ninth plague, Darkness O’er Ægypt, beneath a harrowing, inky sky, Pharaoh lies curled among palace shadows, his face contorted in anguish. A caption below:
“Then the LORD said to Moses, Stretch out your hand
toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt
darkness that can be felt.”
Orlin’s pretty chipper, anyway. Managed to trade off one of his ridiculous, sexually-explicit dragon sketches for a pack of rolling papers. “Thank God it didn’t come to smoking those Gospels!” Trying to be more patient with him, after yesterday’s gesture. Plus, he talked our other neighbors Speegle and Pflugmacher into letting us run some extension cords next door, so we can watch a little TV again. Just in time, too: We’re on the local news this morning—their first mention of the water crisis. They say three million gallons have been lost, all from a faulty two-inch valve. I perk up, awaiting the chilling exposé into prison conditions, but all they show is a brief interview with the town’s mayor crosscut with the same old Bentham B-roll. He’s requested increased local and state police patrols in the area, just as a precaution. And how are things inside? He has no earthly idea, but compliments the “fine staff,” and is sure that “all needs are being met.” Translation: “Don’t you worry about it, hasn’t gotten so bad they’re scaling the fences.” It hits me that there will never be any real accounting of this week. Probably just some puff piece drawn up in the P.R. dept. down at Central Office. Posted on the website, sent around to all the papers. Bet they’ll even give the Superintendent some hokey award, honoring her “leadership and calm demeanor.” That’s history for you, penned by power.
Ever since breakfast, when we all spotted the tiny work crews dangling off the tower, the rumor mill has been in overdrive. Some are saying water will be restored today, others that it’ll still take weeks. Or that it won’t be safe to drink regardless—contaminated with chemicals or sewage or crime-reducing mind-control nanobots. No matter the outcome, I’m guessing suspicions will linger for years. A covenant had been vitiated. Faith in the First World infrastructure irreparably shaken. But of course we’ll drink it, whether it’s mountain-spring clear or rusty as sludge—days from now when the coolers are gone. What choice will we have?
With the leak contained and repairs in motion, there’s actually to be limited movement today—some programs and religious services, morning yard. Even, according to a bulletin on the block channel, a memorial service “to honor the passing of Farley Macilwraith.” Heard the Administration hated these things. They were too-blatant reminders of flawed oversight. Too potentially . . . humanizing. Emotional. Even subversive—as if one could shirk his punishment merely by dying. Apparently, they’d fought for a single, year-end service to cover all deceased inmates, but the Deacon insisted on individual memorials, a final act of dignity for the dead, and a chance for those left behind to grieve semi-properly. Usually, two-three people got squeezed into one anyway, but it must have been a slow couple months—today was just for Farley.
That afternoon, there’s probably 20-some people in the chapel. Fewer than I expected, considering what a man-about he was. And only recognize maybe half of these—Cray and some others from the block. Drum Circle’s leading the service, I guess. Chairs are lined up on either side of the big drum. Someone hands me a program as I’m heading in. Has a photo of Farley on the front, his most recent biannual mugshot. Makes sense they’d use that one—there are no photos of life or activity here, no social media posts. Only memories, and those always fade before long. Can you even remember what he looked like, F.S.? Try. I’ll wait. I bet it’s just some sad, foggy muddle.
All the Native guys assemble around the drum, eight of them. The first pound is shocking, the communal chant. Never anticipated the chapel having such good acoustics. Sound of it all’s so unexpected, so unusual, that I almost laugh. And the silence after is overwhelming, sort of . . . terrifying, actually. When the old man stands, he clears his throat and tells a story about the trickster god Coyote, who, amid some scheme to purloin a basket of pine nuts or something, inadvertently crafts death as it’s still known today. In a bitter twist, Coyote’s son is the first to die, and Coyote’s obliged to go home and explain the situation to the poor boy’s mother. “Dead?” his wife complains. “What nonsense is ‘death’ now?” “How might I describe him to you?” the old man as Coyote continues. “He no longer needs the air in his lungs, or meat in his stomach. You can no longer see him, or speak with him. He no longer walks about.” Coyote’s wife begins sobbing from this news, it’s so horrible. “Let me . . . perhaps describe it better. Our son travels westward on a long journey. He seeks the Great Mystery, Wakan Tanka.” “But he took none of his things!” she wails. “On this journey, he needs no things.” “Not even his bow? His prized deerskin tunic or beaded belts?” “Only his spirit travels, while his body sleeps in the earth. But do not despair, someday we will follow him home to the Source of All Things.” Do our mistakes follow us to such a place, I wonder? Does our pain?
Next comes the Sharing of Memories (“Please limit to four mins each”). I sink in my chair—the bulletin said nothing about public speaking. There’s another long silence. No one wants to be the first to open up. To show vulnerability. Finally, some dope stands, actually chuckles, “Guess the drum should’ve tipped me off, but I thought they were running Protestant Services over here today . . . But, you know, I knew this guy! We went through Classification together years ago. Too bad.” Another dope: “I didn’t know . . . (looking at program) . . . Farley? Am I saying that right? But I was moved by his passing. No one should have to go through that, feel so alone and hopeless. So I’m vowing from this day forward—and we all should, really—to look out for other people. Us cons gotta stick together.” Gag, F.S., Farley would’ve hated this. His life, or death, whatever, inspiring this proactiveness, this brotherly love from strangers? Now Cray’s up telling some story about a prison-wide chess tournament, he’s practically blubbering. Starting to feel so uneasy here, so . . . dismal. All these dinky little impressions—are these what are left of a person? What would anyone remember about a loner like me? Who would even show? And besides, I can’t even recognize this person they’re describing. A happy-go-lucky, all-inclusive, skip-in-his-step Farley? Who was that? He was as complicated as anybody else. Bitter, cynical. Capable of bad things and good. I’m one of the few who hasn’t spoken yet. Can feel the pressure mounting. I try polishing a statement in my head—needs to be just right, do him justice, not like the word vomit all these other guys are spouting. Finally feel I’ve got it. Settle on: “I am a loner. Always have been. At a stage in my life of terrible solitude, Farley took the time, made the effort, to befriend me. I’ll always appreciate that. He was a complex person, and his endearing qualities were not always his best ones. We ate over 3,000 meals together. Thank you.” Okay. I could say that. But just as I’m standing, the drum starts again. A laboring heartbeat. The Circle moaning, keening. I slump back down. The song is the saddest I’ve ever heard. Only the old man seems to be singing actual words. The program has two columns of lyrics, one in English and the other in whatever language he’s speaking, and I try to follow along with my finger. “Mercy, Father!” he howls. “My spirit starves! There’s nothing in this whole world to satisfy me!” I foresee my prison future: long, bleak, directionless. Crushed beneath the weight of my actions. Too much, F.S. Get me out of here—I’m slipping out the back as all the wretched moans taper off. The beat lifts, becomes almost blissful: I think they’re showing him off. Or me.
Speed walking back to the block, the rolled-up program’s still clutched in my sweaty hand. The sun’s so bright today, reflecting off the pockmarked lawns of snow. I’m gonna lose it. Why did I put myself through that? Think about this time I saw Farley running laps at yard. His bum knee slid out of place and he collapsed on the track, cursing and beating the ground. Rushed over to wait with him for the Medical cart, and it just sort of slipped out, “Jesus, doesn’t that hurt?” But he ignored me, sat there gritting his teeth, the thinnest film of tears almost glazing his eyes, steeling himself with, “Don’t you do it. Don’t you do it.” There’s hardly anyone waiting for the toilets anymore. No one scavenging for snow. Everyone must have gone to yard. Thankfully, Orlin did too. Cell’s empty. Looks like he even set out his razor and shaving gel in a bout of wishful thinking. I hang the curtain. Lean on the sink. I just need a little alone time. That’s all. Wash my face, re-center. The me in the mirror taunts: “Just us, again.” I hold in the sink buttons, so heavy. I’m drained. There’s a slow-building, faraway gurgle. A rumbling. My lip trembles.