- Prison and Justice Writing
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- PEN America Prison Writing Award Winners: 2022
Thomas Bartlett Whitaker was awarded an Honorable Mention in Fiction in the 2022 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.
A dusting of freckles,
a laugh, perfect and free, someone he’d known:
A moraine of rusted debris,
a seeping tunnel leading to a ladder:
upward, to stars.
A tiny, gray feather,
perfectly formed, held in the center of a small cage:
an empty hand.
The whoosh-bang of a crash-gate, somewhere in the middle eternity.
The sodium-vapor glare from the run-light intruded, casting yellow lines like a barcode on Marlow’s face. The ghost of a frown formed, and he briefly tried to pull the balloon of his dream back from whatever ethereal realm they fly to once the helium is let out of them: something about a face, and a tunnel, and stars. After a long moment he sighed. He was far enough over the border into consciousness to know this was never going to happen. Not on any day. Certainly not this day.
He cracked his eyes open, one hand pressed to his forehead to block the radiance. “Hail, holy light,” he grumbled. His clock radio blinked angry, red nonsense at him, so he reached for his wristwatch: 2:48am. A little earlier than his usual reveille. He’d wondered if this would happen, if he’d even be able to sleep at all on Discharge Eve. Despite everything, he felt… well, normal, if that word had any meaning in a place like this, to a person like him. You never really know, he mused, just thinking about it all in advance. You make your plans and try to prognosticate as best you can, but in the end you just have to go through it to know. How many stomp down cons had he seen do something remarkably stupid and self-defeating in the weeks before their release dates? Southwest T beat up his cellie, got four stacked on him by the courts for a cracked skull. What was that Mexican’s name who slapped the warden? Feo? Something like that. He was already waiting to go on chain to pre-release. He definitely got extra time for that shit. Chickenhawk: idiot stabbed a commissary trustee thirty days before discharging on a twenty-five. All over a two dollar bag of coffee, too—although, of course, it’s always about far more than just the asshole standing right in front of you. He paused a moment, listening to the sound of a pipe chundering behind the walls, the inevitable result of what happens when your engineers’ hydrostatic acumen is far surpassed by their jerry-rigging creativity. That might have been Fast Black who stabbed the trustee, he admitted, trying to dredge up a stable memory of a face and getting nowhere. Fuck, he sighed finally, closing his eyes again. Everybody sort of runs together after a few decades, everything and everyone redlined reflections of other people and places. I guess that’s how you know you’ve been locked up too long. Not that he needed anyone to tell him that. His body had so many scars they were practically integral to his overall structural stability by this point: take them away, and he might crumble into a million pieces. Unlike his radio, they always told excellent time.
Marlow finally sat up, pulling the covers off. The brilliance from the security light caused him to blink, then wince. The bite in the air sank its teeth in deep, even with the three grills glowing orange in the back corner, hanging from Licky’s clothesline. To his left, bars—beyond that, concrete, more bars, more concrete, eventually a wall of begrimed windows. Everything was essentially a shade of gray, as if he’d had all of the cones sucked out of his eyes. He thought of Rilke’s panther, then put that metaphor away for the last time. Used it too much anyway, he thought, then shifted mentally in reverse, focusing on that “last time” bit. He turned this phrase over and over again, testing the weight of it, something simultaneously too heavy to imagine and lighter than a fantasy. No fear, he concluded at last. A little nervousness, but nothing he couldn’t control, nothing he couldn’t hide until the ref blew the whistle. Satisfied, he grabbed his socks off his own clothesline and put them on. The cold in the concrete floor telegraphed through almost immediately, not impressed by the thermal claims of state cotton. He reached up into his side of the locker suspended above the cell’s door, careful to minimize the creaking of the hinge. Not that it mattered. Anything short of an overhead thermonuclear detonation was unlikely to wake his cellie, especially when the homo insipiens in question had spent the previous evening downing bottles of prison hooch. Marlow could still smell the sickly-sweet stench wafting off the upper bunk, like an oily cheese stuffed with gangrenous flesh sprinkled with decaying flowers. Still: maintaining decency and civility was a choice. It mattered even when no one noticed. Maybe especially then, he thought.
Three steps from locker to sink, seventeen seconds to fill his hot-pot, two minutes, forty seconds for the pot to get warm enough. He didn’t even need a telencephalon to do this, so deeply engrained was the habit. As he reached for his razor hanging from a makeshift hook glued to the wall, he noticed movement down in the shadows pooled in the back corner. He paused briefly, then took two steps back and switched his lamp on. Nestled in the corner in one of Licky’s old shirts, one of the facility’s semi-feral cats glared at him, clearly wondering exactly what the fuck this human was doing in its personal space. Marlow knew better than to try to pet it, as much as he would have liked to. Instead, he returned to his cabinet and removed a small plastic bowl and a three ounce packet of mackerel. The cat tensed up when he placed the bowl down near the corner of the bed. He returned to the sink. It’d eat the fish or not. Could go either way, he knew. A normal cat would have been on that bowl like a fat kid on a cake, but prison cats were survivors: like everyone else, they knew few gifts were truly free in these halls.
He brushed his teeth, then shaved, ticking off new lasts: the last time he’d have to use a contraband handheld mirror, final use of these bullshit, non-commercial grade razors the state picked up cheap from Xinjiang prison labor camps. Won’t miss any of that, he thought. Before putting the mirror away, he took a long look at himself. The man who had stolen his reflection years ago stared warily back at him. It wasn’t a great face, definitely not 1.618 perfection. It had once been maybe marginally attractive when he was young – nothing to brag about, but not so awful that it made women and children run screaming for the hills. He couldn’t really track the temporal lines that led from that face to this, from that sense of I-ness to the present one, and he wondered if this was normal. Are we always mysteries to ourselves, always discovering that we really don’t understand how we became the people we are? Probably not, he decided, slipping the mirror between Licky’s mattress and the metal bunk; he’d find it on his own schedule. Most people are probably lucky enough to slide softly casual from day to day, identity seemingly intact. Here one fell into each new dawn like tripping down a set of stairs. Who you were at the end of the day seldom matched who you’d thought you’d been or planned to be. Everyone plummeting forever, separated by mental bars that the real bars convinced you were some kind of universal constant. Everyone thinking they were actually flying because they lacked the perspective to tell the difference between that and falling.
That was the goal, he knew, filling a cup with instant coffee grounds and pouring in some water from the pot. Refashioning the subjectivity of those incarcerated, imprinting those bars on the self. Of course, back then, there were people who actually wanted to create a new subjectivity that was genuinely better morally, or at least more useful to bourgeois society. He didn’t know exactly when that set of goals got drawn into the dark corners of cost-cutting, conservative political posturing, and “management techniques” and unceremoniously shanked to death, but this butchery took place long before he’d ever first been reduced to a number. Hardly anyone got better in this place these days; hardly anyone even knew they were supposed to try.
He sat back on his bunk and settled against the wall. The heat from the cup warmed his fingers. The bowl was now empty of mackerel and the cat was gone, off on its own feline pursuits. He’d never even heard it leave, he marveled: the best kind of cellie. Sure wish there’d been more of them like that, he thought, mentally flipping through a motley flashcard review of the various ill-behaved primates he’d been forced to share a six-by-nine foot cell with: the chronic masturbators and the chemical dependents, the fist-fights, the arguments, the stenches, the messes, the three times he’d gotten smacked in the face with a stream of 2-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile gas because his cellie was tripping out on K2 or bath salts and wouldn’t cuff up on command. Wouldn’t miss any of that either, he nearly said out loud. That was going to end up the day’s leitmotif, he figured, if he wasn’t careful. Probably unavoidable, he decided after another moment’s thought.
Somewhere down on Three-Row, he heard the slow clinking, jingling sound of a set of keys swinging on a screw’s belt. He listened to this discordant melody of oppression as it reached the end of the run and grew chaotic and angry as the officer hefted his way up the stairs. He could hear him mumbling names out loud and tapping bars with something solid as he paused at each cell. Seconds later an obese man in a gray uniform heaved into view, the ring of keys just one of a bewildering array of the tools of modern corrections attached to his belt: handcuffs, baton, mace, matte black flashlight bright enough to send coded messages to Proxima Centauri. The uniform itself was faux-military in design, poorly fashioned and even more poorly maintained: essentially metonymic for the system of which the officer was representative. His attention was focused on the count-sheet in his hands.
“Marlow?” he muttered, before looking towards the lower bunk. Seeing him awake, he grunted. “Mornin’.” “Good morning, Mr Merces.”
The officer shifted his eyes upward. “Schauerlich? Licky?” the man repeated, tapping the bars with a pencil. “He alive up there?” His voice was a strange, smoky form of a rasp, as if he’d done a great deal of screaming once upon a time and had broken some integral piece of anatomical machinery.
Marlow paused for a moment. “He’s breathing,” he responded finally, avoiding the more difficult aspect of the question. “He’s just hard of hearing, is all.”
“He’s hard of listenin’. Different problem ‘tirely,” Merces responded, and then leaned in, sniffing. “Nossir, this here soldier was downed by the type of ordinance that you gotta uncork before bein’ deployed. Hope you got you some pills for his fat ass later.”
“’In our father’s pharmacy are many prescriptions.”
Merces laughed, hitching his belt up against his gut. “Amen to that. Breakfast carts is downstairs. Didn’t smell no syrup. Ain’t makin’ no promises, but could be eggs.”
“Will wonders never cease,” Marlow quipped, but the man had already hauled himself to the next cell. He sat there, listening to the sounds of the prison as it dreamed: far down the run to the left, he could hear the low oompah-oompahing of Norteño music coming from the speaker he’d made for Cacuy; in a few hours, once the man knew everyone was awake, they’d be able to hear that thing all the way over on D-Line, what with all the magnets he’d used. A few minutes later, the crash and bang of the food carts as they rolled into place, the shouts of the kitchen crew as they loaded the carriers and started lugging them up the stairs: clank, slam, ding, the daily 3:30am-ish wake-up call.
Marlow waited until they were two cells down before slapping the palm of his hand against the underside of the bunk. He listened for a response; hearing nothing, he repeated the motion with more force. He’d never actually heard a pig go truffling before, but he imagined it might sound a lot like his cellie as he was trying to wake himself.
“Breakfast,” he called out.
“Gah.” This was followed by audible smacking sounds. “The devil raise a hump on you.” “He may yet. You want this slop or not?”
“The fuck time is it?”
“Bitch-ass motherfuckers need to learn to light their shit without blowing the breakers,” Licky groused, and Marlow heard the click of buttons as his cellie reset his clock. Licky continued to grumble about his idiot neighbors as Marlow stood up and moved to the door. He didn’t really mean any of it, he knew. His moaning was really just a function of potvaliancy mixed with envy: eight hours from now he’d be done with his postpartum depression and return to his normal, gregarious mode, and if any of the people who’d tripped the breakers offered him one of their joints, he’d accept and then smoke the thing at near-relativistic speeds.
Officer Merces entered stage right, using a long steel bar to pop open the tray slot. A pair of kitchen workers followed him, one holding aloft a metal tray carrier, the other handing the trays to the men in the cells. Sure enough, Marlow saw, there were two fried eggs in the main slot, a minor miracle in this wasteland of perpetual pancakes. He accepted both trays, and handed one up to Licky. Before he sat down on his bunk he reached into his cabinet for a bottle of jalapeño squeeze cheese and some black pepper. He waited for a few seconds before handing the bottle upstairs. “Cheese?”
Licky responded with a gripe, something about his “hoe-ass mattress” being all “hogged-down and wallered out” in the middle, but he took the bottle. Marlow followed this with the pepper: this too disappeared. He ate the oatmeal and the pear slices, and then lifted the rest of the tray into view. “You want these eggs?”
“Hell yeah, I want them eggs,” Licky answered quickly, sounding almost civil for the first time. “You got any jalapeños?” Marlow smiled at the way he pronounced the word: jal-o-pee-nos.
“I already gave you the last of my cheese. Greater love hath no man…”
“Shite and onions.”
“Ain’t got any of that either. Running low on patience for your mouth, too.”
Marlow sipped his coffee and waited for his cellie to finish. Watching Licky try to climb up or down from the top bunk was an almost painful act, one that always made Marlow wish he had a crane handy. Not enough to inspire him to swap bunks, of course, but Marlow was happy enough to compromise by elevating things like trays up to him. It wasn’t the only way that Licky regularly took advantage of him or his status, but Marlow didn’t mind it all that much. One learns the difference between an epiphyte and a parasite pretty quickly in this place; when it came to cellies, the former was about all one could hope for. Besides that, after everything – or perhaps because of everything – he’d realized that it’s just much simpler and easier to be hurt than it is to hurt. If l know anything, he thought, anything true, that’s it. Fortunately for them both, Licky had a champion-grade bladder, or the situation might not have worked out so well.
Licky lowered the trays, and Marlow took them and slid them out through the gap under the door. He could see his cellie in his peripheral vision as he checked a few of the bottles strewn about his mattress for any hooch that might have evaded him; finding none, he sighed and laid back down again. Marlow waited until the man’s breathing slowed before he switched on his radio, keeping the volume low. The only station coming in clearly was the alternative rock one, so he left it there and again leaned back against the wall. Licky would understand why he hadn’t told him he was getting out today, he knew. Word goes around, predators begin to circle, looking to claim your property, your contraband, your connections, your peace of mind, maybe even start some trouble that could mess up your parole, maybe get you some stacked years dumped on you. He wasn’t superstitious in the least, just well-trained to keep his business to himself. Licky’d get it; he’d miss him for a week and then he’d return to the drama of his own louche solipsisms. The man’s needs were pretty simple. So long as his family continued to send cash to his account, he could get daily drunk and weekly high and stay permanently fat. He had no real goals or dreams beyond that, didn’t really care for “fancy-shmancy ideas”, as he called them.
Marlow often wondered about what it would be like to be naturally free from such things. Systematically and surgically killing off his dreams was a daily occurrence for Marlow, so to a certain extent he acknowledged the sense of… well, not peace, that clearly wasn’t the right word for this thing Licky had. Maybe simplicity? Yeah, he thought. That worked, though I’m being charitable: the simplicity of Licky’s existence. On the other hand, he didn’t seem to possess much of a soul at all, just one big reflex arc, needs and passions either slaked or denied. He took another sip of coffee. ”Soul” wasn’t really a good fit, either: could such a word even be used seriously in an age when Cartesian dualism was such a joke? There wasn’t really a secular analog, though. “Spirit” was still too tinged with naïve metaphysics, “entelechy” and “holons” were both too technical, “sophisticated level crossing feedback-loop-imbibed intentional agent” too much of a mouthful for casual conversations. Whatever—soul worked as a shorthand for what he was aiming at. Some people just seemed to have more of one. Babies had almost no soul, but it grew in them as they aged. Old-timers with dementia had lost theirs, human-shaped shells deprived of the essentially human. Everyone else in between sat on a spectrum. None of us here have had much of one, apparently, he thought ruefully. Or maybe society had just decided ours weren’t worth respecting. That would probably seem like opposite sides of the same coin to most people, he knew. He didn’t think so but he knew he’d have a hard time convincing a civilian of that. On the radio, Fleet Foxes were singing about being raised as snowflakes but preferring to be a cog in a great machine, serving something greater. “What’s my name; what’s my station?/ Oh, just tell me what I should do.” Marlow grunted and reached over to turn the radio off.
Silence reigned for a time before somewhere on the row below him an alarm went off; after a few seconds it was silenced. A few minutes later another could be heard to his left, then another, and another. Wake-up time for the field-squad—what used to be called the “hoe-squad” before that word got kidnapped by the zeitgeist and dramatically redefined. Marlow stood up and reached into his cabinet. He flipped through a series of small, folded pieces of paper, each carefully glued shut and printed with the nicknames of fellow convicts. Each had two stamps taped to the outside, the penal equivalent of cab fare. He paused. No, better call them two oboli, for Charon’s ride across the Styx: that was a decent allusion. I’d write that down if this were any other day, he thought. It wasn’t, though, so he selected one of the notes and then removed a pencil that had a small piece of mirror glued to one terminus. He angled this through the bars when he began to hear door locks being released by the officer manning the controls in the rotunda. A couple of cons in tattered work gear and boots grew larger in the mirror’s reflection and then sleepily trundled past. A minute later he was able to pick out Ironwood’s bulky frame approaching his door. The man pulled up short, having seen the mirror.
“Morning, ‘Wood,” Marlow said, sticking his hand out. The man shook it, palming the kite. “Charles. What you got for me?”
“Delivery for Chino Li, plus a couple of flags for your trouble.”
“Aight,” he said, leaning closer to the bars and inhaling. “Jesus H. Christ, Licky, you fat fuck: you think you could make it any more obvious?”
“Let the man’s liver die in peace.”
“This hot?” lronwood asked, nodding towards the diminutive package.
“Not even a little bit. Message only, encoded. You get jammed up, give it up.”
“Okay. I may have something I need your help on next week. Won’t know for a few more days.” “I’ll be here,” Marlow lied.
“Later, then,” he replied, then paused, turning back. He gave Marlow a lengthy inspection, his head tilted slightly to one side.
Marlow jammed down on his kill switch, voiding his features of all affect. “What?”
“No… it’s nothing,” Ironwood responded at last. “It’s just that you were smiling. Don’t think I’ve ever seen you do that before.”
“Get out of here,” Marlow waved dismissively, turning back to his bunk so the other man couldn’t see his face.
“No, seriously. You’re like exuding all kinds of happiness or some shit.”
Marlow lifted an arm and sniffed it. “Must be this new soap. Got to go back to the old stuff that put out only misery and loathing.”
“Come to find out Licky gave up the booty last night,” Ironwood said, elevating his voice as he reached in to tap the sleeping man’s head.
Marlow grimaced. “And here I was, having such a nice morning.”
Ironwood cackled as he strode away. Licky remained blissfully unaware of the entire exchange.
It infects us, he thought, so quickly. The things we see every day: violence, rape, indifference. We try to joke about the monsters that turn us to stone, to rob them of their power: and yet we get there all the same, laugh or no laugh. He moved to the back of the cell and unplugged one of the grills. He left it hanging for a few minutes to cool off, the almost complete circle fading from orange to reddish-gray to merely gray. Once he was satisfied it could be touched, he wrapped the cord up and put the entire device into a brown paper sack. We turn away from each other and all the chains of interdependence, become radically alienated and then label this a virtue. Maybe that’s what the soul really is, an increasingly developed sense of participating in a grand “we”, he thought. If so, Licky’s not the only one without a soul. In fact, in terms of the percentage of his humanity that he’d lost in prison, he was probably doing better than most of us. At least he’d managed to smile once since the late Cretaceous. “Oh, just tell me what I should do,” he whispered quietly to himself.
At 7am the locking mechanisms on the doors began popping open, one after another, a weird domino cascade that began on his right and overtook him to pass to his left. Every single time, he thought, it never fails: a memory of the damned “wave” from the Double-A games his uncle used to take him to when he was a kid. What was that, four decades ago? And still it’s hard-wired in there, this desire to raise his hands and shout “Weee!” as the locks whizzed past. Instead, he tucked a set of three kites into his shirt pocket and the brown sack under his arm and stepped out onto the run. He was joined by eight or ten guys from his row, all headed in the same direction. By the time his group had trudged down the stairs and reached the dayrooms, half a dozen guys from Three-Row had already entered and flipped the two televisions on. Marlow wasn’t big on spending much time in the dayrooms, so he moved to the windows, giving the detritus time to sift into the form it was inevitably going to take: whites at these tables, blacks over yonder, Hispanics in their place. Once he was satisfied he understood the layout, he settled into a seat with his back to the wall and a view of the television showing the morning news.
The noise began almost immediately: dominoes clacking, televisions blaring, a rising tide of coprolalia: all of the ruined, mental drain-swirl that passes for thinking in places like this, the psychic equivalent of third-degree burns when applied over the course of a life. The room itself contributed to the assault, being all right angles and hard surfaces. It was like the building had no clothes on, he thought, the perfect place for noise to echo and reverberate, just bouncing around until it impacted the only soft surfaces available: us. Like rain on statues, he decided: same results. He focused on a young Mexican flashing sign language across the open space of the rotunda to someone in another wing. He clung to the bars with his left hand, looking like nothing so much as one of Harlow’s baby monkeys, snuggled up next to its wire mother. Might be more to that simile than mere appearances, he realized grimly. For some of these kids, this place has been more of a parent to them than their original gene donors ever were.
Manos arrived an hour later. After greeting the assembled Hispanics he launched into his workout routine near the pull-up bar. Marlow had to hand it to the man: despite everything, he was religious about his fitness regimen. He’d never asked Manos exactly what had happened to him; the bullet wound scar was an obvious clue. The rumor mill had it that the cops had really fucked him up during his arrest, but the exact circumstances were unknown. Whatever had happened, it had left his hands awkwardly angled, three fingers on each splayed out, the pinkies bent inward: thus his nickname. His back had a strange lump on it, the result of some kind of fusion operation. He’d tried to cover up some of the scars with angry, violent tattoos, but the effect ended up looking like the vast majority of prison tats: an acupuncture map of male insecurity. Despite all of that, he’d never once heard the man complain about much of anything.
A group of SSIs passed the dayroom cage, pushing brooms and a mop bucket. Marlow called one of the ones he trusted over. “Three times for M- and N-wings,” he muttered, hanging his hand outside the bars. The man accepted the notes and the accompanying stamps. On the way back to his seat, he called Manos’ name. The man looked up, halfway into a set of burpees. “When you finish your workout, come see me.”
“Aight. Estaré contigo enseguida. Hoy no me apetecía este jale. Don’t know why. Some days you just ain’t feeling it, sabes?”
Marlow nodded and returned to his seat. A CGI squid tried to sell him car insurance for the fourth or fifth time that morning, and he closed his eyes; there weren’t enough savings in the world big enough to reward with his business a company that created such imbecilic advertisements. This is the last time, he thought, that he’d ever have to be locked in a cage like this, watching the Ayn Rand marching band pundits on Fox Noise spin their lying hickpolitik for the booboisie, the last time he’d ever have to worry about crossing some unseen line laid down by racial troglodytes, the last time –
The bench rocked as someone sat down on his left.
“Ésta no es la clase de vecindario por el que se puede pasear uno con los ojos cerrados, homie,” Manos said, breathing deep.
“I have other ways of seeing,” Marlow replied ominously, opening his eyes to slits and turning slightly to face the other man. “For instance, I know what really happened to Greenspoint’s jag last autumn. I’ve also seen what you’ve been up to with Ms Gonzalez in the commissary storeroom. I’ve seen what –”
“Okay, okay,” Manos hushed him, looking around to see if anyone had been close enough to overhear. “Pinche gabacho escandaloso,” he replied, smiling. “Point made. What’s new?” he asked, clapping Marlow’s hand.
“Not much. Cómo te encuentras? How’s business?”
“Meh. Otro pinche día en este infierno. I started out with jack shit and I still have most of it left.”
“Not the way it looks from my cell. Looks to me like you’ve been cranking out about a hundred bottles a week.”
“Closer to one-twenty,” Manos bragged. That was the second thing Marlow liked about the man: like him, he had no one outside the prison helping him out with anything. Manos relied entirely on his hustles to survive; in his case, this meant making booze. A good hustle, though one the administration would come down on like a ton of bricks if the wrong ranking officer found out who was behind it.
“No flak from the juras? Merces zeroed in on Licky this morning, by the way.”
“Merces minds his business. Anyways, riesgos asumibles son el precio a pagar por hacer negocios. Si yo no hubiera estado preparado para ellos, lo mismo podría haberme quedado en casa.”
Marlow nodded, thinking: that’s what we all should have done from jump street. “Speaking of Licky, how deep is he in now?”
Manos sat still for a moment, reviewing his mental ledger: the only kind allowed in prison. “Forty-two flags.”
“He paying up consistently?”
“Mostly. He’s a little behind now, but he says he has something in the works with a prima of his. Probably bullshit to get me to keep giving him credit, aunque no pienso apostar contra nada que tenga que ver con ese hijoputa – he keeps surprising me, you know?”
Marlow knew. He flipped open his ID holder to the hidden pocket he’d sewn inside and withdrew some stamps. He counted out sixty.
“There’s for the debt, and eighteen more for the next six bottles. Tonight, right?”
“Much appreciated. I’ll come his way just before shift change. I’ve got a new batch I’ve got to pour off, six days old, good stuff.”
Marrow nodded, then transferred the brown paper sack from his right side to his left. “Want that?”
Manos opened the bag slowly, as if it might contain a viper. Seeing the grill, he removed it and checked the connections. “Daria mi cojón izquierdo por eso,” he said at last.
“Bleh. I’m not charging that much. In fact, I’m not charging at all. It’s yours.”
Manos looked up at him, his eyes searching Marlow’s face carefully. His features finally softened and a small smile crept across his lips. He understood. He thinks he understands, Marlow corrected himself.
“Carnal… I don’t… We go back a ways, don’t we?” Manos stopped himself after these words, blinked once, and then continued, all business. “How do I use it?”
“You need to scrape the metal off the top of your bunk. If you are ever in a cell that has a desk, you can use that too, since it’s a lot less metal to have to heat up. That’s your cooking surface. You’ll need to construct a pillar of some kind – most of the guys use books followed by soda cans at the top. You just need to make sure that the whole surface of the ring there is pressed firmly to the underside of the bunk, so it transfers the most heat possible. Now, full disclosure: If you are cooking for yourself, one grill is enough. If you are planning to set up some kind of production line for a restaurant, you will want to use some of your profits to get a couple more.”
“Bro, I’m gonna open my own grill to go with my bar. My micro-distillery, I mean,” he quickly corrected himself, making little air quotes with his bent and broken fingers.
“If you can find a flat piece of metal, you can dispense with the bed or desk entirely. There’s a nice five-by fourteen piece of steel that sits underneath the keyboard on the typewriters they sell us. You have to open the machine to get it out, but once you do, it works great. Just set the grill on top of three soda cans, and then rest the plate on top of the grill. Viola.”
“And I just use butter, right?”
“Yeah. The kitchen workers will sell you bricks for a dollar. Or you can use the sandwich spread from the commissary, since one of its principal ingredients is soybean oil.”
“Always wanted one of these. I just never knew how to get the maldita element out of the hot-pot without breaking it.”
“It’s not hard. Honestly, it just pops out once you get the bottom casing off. On nights when it’s cold, you can hang the thing up and plug it in and it works like a little space heater. It’s not going to be an immense change in the temp, but it does help.”
“Sandwiches go for what? Two for a buck-fifty?”
“Yeah, same with tacos,” Marlow responded, his attention shifting back to the dayroom. A young Mexican was using one of the electrical sockets to light a joint, and he decided it was getting on time to leave. “Break Licky off with something to eat every once in a while. That panzón of his needs constant attention.”
Manos laughed. “His gut is going to kill him some day.”
“I’m still betting on his mouth doing the honors, but you may be right,” Marlow sighed, sticking his hand out. “Until we both get what’s coming to us.”
Manos took his hand, shook it, gave him one last long look, and then went to rejoin the Hispanics and show them his new toy. Some of the white boys weren’t going to like that, he thought as he walked to the dayroom’s gate. Grilling was Caucasian territory, like one racial group could actually attempt to patent an entire form of cooking for themselves: silly. He waved to an officer in the rotunda. After a few moments she noticed him and flipped a button on the control panel and the gate clicked open. So long to that business, he thought, returning to his cell. What had Manos called it? “Another day in hell”? It might be that for him, he admitted, a sort of constant failing at what he probably wants more than anything else: to be physically healthy again. Definitely a Greek conception of hell, all those push-ups, trying to twist his arms in order to get a clean movement. Closer to Tantalus or Sisyphus than a Christian’s eschatological intuitions: an eternal repetition of the same failure in lieu of the Eternal Bonfire. He piled the last of his books into a mesh bag, plus a quarter bag of coffee and his last Snickers bar. That’s really why I like Manos, he realized. Whatever he did to get here, he’s paying, he’s probably paid more than he should have, he’s in the black. Whatever the courts or society had to say about guilt and punishment and debts, he’s given back more than he could have possibly taken, considering he’s here on a dope case. Marlow fumbled for the right concept before settling on another religiously-tinged word: redemption. Not a term one heard much in this place. There’s no room for it, really, he thought. But that’s what Manos had. He was square with the house.
He checked his watch: 8:45am. He started to count down the hours and then forced himself to stop. I can’t be doing that all day, he thought. It’s nearly over with and that’s good enough. He reached out to gently push on Licky’s shoulder. Getting no response, he shoved harder.
“I need to leave for work. You going in?”
“Fuck. Fuck it, no, I’m…” Licky paused, then sighed. “Yeah, I got to go. Can’t get fired again or the major says he’s gonna stick me in the fields.” He slowly sat up. “I could kill Christ for a drink.”
“Or you could take these four ibuprofen and murder no one. Your call. I’m gone,” Marlow said, leaving the small packets of medication on the top bunk. He grabbed his bag and headed back down the steps. Licky was right about one thing: he couldn’t afford to get axed from his SSI job. He’d already gotten kicked out of the kitchen for reasons which surprised precisely no one save the kitchen captain. He tried to train with the electricians but decided there was too much “theory” involved—and by that he meant work. So this was it: push a broom three days a week for a few hours or go till the fields. Officer Lopez was stationed at the wing’s crash-gate, checking off the names of the men as they filed through.
“Marlow. Library,” he stated, holding up his identification.
“The bag?” she asked, looking down.
“Books for donation, personal coffee, half a kilo of cocaine,” he joked, watching her face carefully as he did so.
She laughed. “If only you were serious, I might actually have a shot at liking this job for once. Now, get.”
Satisfied by her response, Marlow followed a line of prisoners wearing threadbare green jackets down a long redbrick hallway, watching small groups peel off at various junctures: Big Red and Wyatt for the maintenance bays, Moises and No Limit for the Sarge’s office, a large group headed for the schoolhouse. He followed this latter crowd, only diverging by a couple of doors once they arrived at the education facility. Through a long set of windows he could see into the Law Library, where the usual assortment of jailhouse lawyers and writ writers hung out their shingles and engaged in continuous and almost universally unsuccessful lawfare. 44 was seated at a table in the middle of the room and he thought about stopping in to check on his progress, but decided against it. He would comply with the contract. That was out of his hands now. Marlow continued down the hall until it dead-ended at the Recreational Library.
That was really too grand a name for the place, he reflected for the umpteenth time as he pulled the door closed behind him. The Bodleian or the Beinecke it was not. The Library Closet would have been more accurate, the Library Nook that the administration permitted more from a sense of tradition than any real understanding of recidivism reduction theory. And yet: these roughly 600 square feet were his: the wooden shelves bravely losing their battle against entropy his, the suggested reading lists entirely his. This was the place he’d poured his time and energy and care into for sixteen years now, his attempt to create a safe place for minds to expand. That was the goal, at any rate. He wasn’t sure how much of that had actually taken place over the years, how many humans had been saved. Less than he’d have liked, more than some in the free world or the legislature would credit, probably.
Officer Clarke was lounging in his chair in his small office, the only other person in the library. That wasn’t unusual for this time of the morning. Most days, his boss spent a good three-quarters of his shift planted in that chair, in various stages of flirtation with the phases of the sleep cycle. Clarke was content with allowing Marlow to run the library, and Marlow was content with the old man leaving him the hell alone.
Marlow spent an hour cleaning, giving the space a thorough dusting: another personal last, and more than likely the last such cleaning the space would experience for some time, knowing Clarke. He logged in the books he’d brought with him, placing the appropriate labels on the spines and adding them to the registry. He then filled the orders from the hole and close custody. He’d procured a list of all of the men in the administration segregation wings, and each week he selected twenty or thirty names of guys who hadn’t ordered anything and sent them works he thought might help them or spark an interest: Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Jerry Coyne’s Faith vs Fact, A.C. Grayling’s The Refutation of Scepticism. By the time he’d loaded the carts up for dispersal it was half an hour till noon and the first of the GED classes were being let out. A dozen or so of the guys with time to kill on their lay-in cards stopped by to gossip, maybe see if there were any new deliveries. Marlow was a consistent pesterer of all of the organizations that donated books to prisons, so this was a fairly even bet on most weeks, even if he was continually disappointed to view the sorts of titles they were interested in. Dean Koontz might be a step up from mere barbarism, but it was a very small one.
The lunch hour approached and the crowd emptied out, leaving only Marlow and Winston, the Ed Building’s teacher’s aide. A formally educated scholar amid a heathen mob of autodidacts, he always reminded Marlow of one of those isolated bookworm types from a Chekhov story; the parallels between poor Southerners and Russian peasants were striking and so obvious he had a hard time understanding why no one had ever written a book on the subject before. Winston had annexed an entire table near the back corner, loose papers and various titles spread out before him, his pencil darting across one of the former, eyes the latter. Marlow checked on Officer Clarke’s state of wakefulness; finding him suitably engrossed in a thorough review of the backsides of his eyelids, he took a pair of cups off the man’s desk and filled them with coffee from the percolator. Taking the seat across from Winston, he plopped both cups down in the middle of the table.
“Warden comes in while you are drinking that, you didn’t get it from me. But don’t worry, I’ll make sure you have plenty of reading material when he assigns you to the hole.”
The other man laughed, setting down his pencil. “Get thee behind me, Satan,” he quipped, reaching for one of the cups. He took a long sniff and then a sip. “But not that far behind me. Criminy, that’s good. You forget what real coffee tastes like after downing gallons of that instant crap they sell us.”
“One of the perks of the job.”
“There are others?” he asked, looking around skeptically.
“Scintillating conversation. Don’t let me down, now,” Marlow responded, leaning over to extract from a small pile of the books Winston was using for his research. He saw it was one of Frank Dikötter’s recent works on Mao. “What brings you into my little corner of paradise?” he asked at last. “I never got around to these. Essay or short story?”
“I think you are forgetting the most important feature of any paradise, my friend, the only thing that prevents it from eventually devolving into a hell: an exit door.”
Marlow acknowledged the point, then rotated his pointer finger around in the universally understood signal for getting-on-with-it.
“Story, but it’s got a didactic core, because I can’t seem to be able to help myself. Freud wrote that you could judge an author by how he treats his readers, and I think I must be a horribly cruel god, because I keep requiring mine to have saintly levels of patience and understanding. Anyways,” he said, pushing his glasses back from the tip of his nose. “I had wanted to write about the Chinese Communist Party in 2019 during all the protests in Hong Kong, but I couldn’t ever figure out how to do it. You know, a prisoner writes something about someone or something, and he automatically discredits that subject just because of who he is. I didn’t want to harm a movement I deeply respected just because of my own moral failings.”
“What’s changed? Unless my eyes deceive me, you are still locked up.”
“Two things. First, I switched from wanting to write an essay to a piece of fiction. It took me a minute to find my way into the story, to shrink it from some kind of grand polemic down to the essential tale I wanted to tell. There was this incident in Yuen Long in 2019 where a bunch of triads beat up some protestors, and cops and a local pro-Beijing politician were photographed chilling with the gangsters. Outrageous stuff, completely documented at the time, and I knew I was going to have to do something with it eventually. My story takes place ten years later, when this same corrupt politician is hanging out at his vacation home in St Tropez. It’s from that series I’ve been writing for a couple of years now about this pair of hit men, if that doesn’t spoil the ending for you.”
“I take it things don’t end well for the guy.”
“Hell no. ‘Hoenggong Jan, gā yáu’, they said at the time: I ‘add the oil’ in a literal sense, along with a match.”
“You aren’t… you know… worried about the parole board having concerns over you writing stories about killing people?”
“That’s the second thing: after getting written up a bunch of times for selling essays, I started using a nom de plume. This way everyone gets to win: the prison gets to imagine they’ve silenced me, and I get to occasionally eat something from the commissary. Being a starving artist may sound great to the edgy, revolutionary, scarf-wearing set, but it actually kind of sucks in reality.”
“That why you are skipping lunch? Got a cabinet full of food now?” Marlow asked, looking at his watch. Do not count the hours, he repeated to himself.
“That, and because they are serving Fuck Me Not Again today.”
Marlow blinked at the other man. “I never could keep track of all the nicknames and neologisms coming out of the kitchen. That’s beef stew?”
“Ah,” Marlow sighed. I can pass on that, too, he thought. He wasn’t really hungry. It’s almost over with anyway, this bitching about awful state food. His eyes wandered over his shelves for a few moments, sipping his coffee. “Get thee behind me,” he murmured.
“What you said a minute ago,” he responded, hesitating. “I… myself made an ironic allusion to something biblical this morning when I was talking to Licky. You mentioned hell, too, a subject that seems to be insisting upon itself today. I guess I was just thinking that it’s so strange the way beliefs I gave up on years ago seem to have saturated my lexicon to the extent that even within my unbelief, liturgical pieties keep popping up. I mean, ‘soul’: it’s the twenty-first century, and I still can’t find a word to replace a term that should have died the second we first fired up a functional MRI machine. Is that my poverty of imagination or is it something bigger?”
Winston hummed and chewed on the end of his pencil for a moment. “Soul is tricky, I think. I used to play the piano when I was a kid. My mother had a serious crush on Chopin, and she had all of these bright yellow, Schirmer editions of his works. There was this preface to his 11th étude of Opus 25 in A minor by some critic. I can’t recall the man’s name now; how strange, considering all of the hours I wrecked myself on that piece.” He shook his head slightly, then continued. “In the essay, this guy claimed that ‘small-souled men’ shouldn’t attempt it, no matter how agile their fingers. It was clear what he meant: the piece required a ton of feeling, the ability to ignore the head and allow the music to come from a much deeper place. I don’t need to believe in some magical essence in order to have understood him, and I’m pretty sure that virtually everyone who read the essay understood that we were not talking about some mystical spirit-stuff. And I don’t need to think in those terms when someone like you drops the word: you simply mean a measure of our capacity for compassion, decency. Your problem is that you are too wrapped up in demanding that the word have metaphysical connotations. It’s that whole god-shaped hole thing. You never really got over all of that childhood programing you went through, and so you’ve never really tried to plug up that lacuna with anything. God’s ghost still haunts you. That usually just makes people sadder, in my experience. You seem to be actually angry about it, like you are blaming God for not existing. That’s kind of weird, you know?”
He’s not wrong about that, Marlow thought. But it doesn’t really matter anymore. Or it doesn’t matter enough to change anything. “I guess I never thought that replacing one fantasy with another solved the original problem, even if it would have made me feel better. No offense,” Marlow said quickly.
Winston smiled. “None taken. I know in the grand scheme of things there’s not much daylight between an atheist and a pantheist. In a theocracy, my bonfire would burn right next to yours. But by believing that nature is in some sense holy, and that I have some relation to eternity by being a part of that holiness, I think the absence of an active, theistic deity stings a bit less.”
“But it’s still fundamentally irrational. ‘God is nature’? ‘God is the universe’? That’s just semantic wordplay. Spinoza may be more intellectually respectable than Christianity these days, but it’s just another set of fairies in the garden.”
“Maybe,” Winston said, slowly nodding. “That might be true; I don’t believe so, but you may be correct. I happen to think that the infinite intelligibility of the universe is a pretty good summation of what I think of as God, but I may be wrong. It might really all be some kind of indeterminate soup down at the bottom. And yet: forgive me, Charles, but at least words like ‘hell’ and references to a passel of Levantine folktales don’t cause me to automatically and dependably fall into a brooding séance of introspection. Whatever l have, it allows me to connect still to joy, purpose, and meaning. When was the last time you were actually happy, up there in the Castle Reason?”
He doesn’t understand, Marlow thought, taking another sip from his cup: how could he? He’s a thief. He’s here for stealing things. The harm he caused was the loss of material wealth. Granted, it was a lot of material wealth, but still: he nevertheless continues to live in a cosmos where the past might be recoverable, or at least correctable in the future, where redemption remains a real possibility. Like Manos, he too could actually break even with the house. It’s different when you’ve taken a life. You do something like that, you aren’t supposed to ever feel joy again, you aren’t supposed to be able to have dreams. You don’t get to be whole.
“Why not?” Winston asked, his head tilted.
Marlow snapped back to attention. “What?”
“You mumbled, ‘you don’t get to be whole’. Why? Isn’t that the goal of all of this?” he asked, waving his hand around at the walls, though whether he meant life in general or the prison or the library in particular Marlow couldn’t tell.
Because the smell of cordite won’t go away, he nearly said out loud. Not after thirty damned years, I still smell it everywhere. Gods, I’m tired, he thought, sighing deeply. Instead of saying any of that, he shook his head. “Look at me, I’m saying my thoughts out loud. Rookie move, right?” he laughed a little at himself. “I guess on some level I still wish hell existed. Not as a permanent site; only a sadist and a tyrant would demand eternal punishment for a finite series of trespasses, and only a moral coward and opportunist would follow such a despot. But something like that, some painfully obvious means of equating or connecting transgression and just deserts.”
Winston smiled. “Again: I thought that’s what we were doing here.”
“I don’t really buy that. There are too many divisions or barriers between the act and whatever this is, too many independent actors that got involved, so that the end result seems almost purely arbitrary rather than a consequence of anything. Look, none of these officers know or care about what you or I did to get here. If one of them came in here right now and hit you over the head with a baton, he’d justify it through the language of correction, and he’d get away with it. Society might even give him a medal, a raise. But it wouldn’t have anything to do with that. None of the bullshit we go through has anything to do with that. It all has to do with the moral failings of the people in charge. There’s no real connection between what I did thirty years ago and what I’m experiencing today. I’m fifty years old. My younger self has been dead for decades. How could this be didactic for society, in any case? My sufferings, or lack thereof, are completely occluded from view.” For some reason, saying that “thirty” number out loud made Marlow want to scream.
Winston stared at him for a long moment, then shook his head, as if he were trying to clear a minor ache. “You are a piece of work, Charles.” He wiped his hand across his chin for a second, gathering his thoughts. “If I understand the concept of hell, it’s essentially the place where there is no place or time to which you would not flee in order to escape it. Like: if you can say: okay, the torture chamber of the Spanish Inquisition is worse than this, then you aren’t in hell, because you’d rather be here than there, and hell is always the worst place there is. You can’t honestly tell me that you’d like to be taken to the rack by a bunch of god-bitten thugs. How is that didactic?”
“It would make all of this so much simpler. I keep looking for the entity that I can go to and say: hey, please take more from me – I want to pay what I owe, I want to be complete again, to make those I harmed complete.”
“Oh, Charles,” Winston said, looking at him with a degree of pity that instantly annoyed Marlow. “That person you are looking to address is yourself. Sure, society has to take their pound of flesh: that’s the closest we’ve come to yet in our clumsy pursuit of whatever justice really is. But only you get to decide when you’ve learned the moral lesson behind the failure that put you here. The only real forgiveness comes from inside.”
Then may my denial of that be my greatest offering, Marlow thought instantly. This declaration made him feel better in a weird way. He smiled, swallowing the dregs of his cup and looking into Winston’s to see it empty. “And if we’re both wrong? If we both have a very extended date with some horned and pitchfork-wielding masochists in the hereafter?”
Winston remained silent for a moment, then glanced at his watch and started gathering his papers. “Who ever strives with all his power, we are allowed to save.”
Marlow detected the cadence of a quotation. “What’s that from?”
“Bah. And you call yourself a librarian. Go read that biography on Goethe that you obviously haven’t gotten to yet. They’re only some of the most famous lines in all of German literature.”
“I’ll get to it,” Marlow lied, then stood up.
“See you tomorrow,” Winston said as he returned to class.
“Sure,” he responded, then took the cups down the hall to wash them out in the sink. After he’d returned and replaced them he moved to one of the shelves in the rear of the library, the one he reserved for books no one ever requested. My forgotten children, he sometimes referred to them. A dark red hardback volume attracted his attention, and he removed it from the shelf. The cover was worn, a sort of herringbone pattern showing through the crimson. He remembered the day this one had arrived, a few years ago. Just north of center on the cover: a small black rectangle with Three Soldiers and Dos Passos in gold lettering. No John, just the surname, he thought, marveling at the era when this man was so well-known that no first was needed. How many people even know who Dos Passos is today, he wondered, flipping open the cover to the title page, with its little colophon of a Greek god. Who was that? Apollo? Winston would have known. He then looked at the publication date: 1932. 1932! The pages were pleasantly browned and dry with age, and had a sweet spicy aroma that carried just a hint of smoke, like the book had been kept for years in a room where real logs were regularly burned in a fireplace. The events this thing had witnessed, he thought, running his fingers across the pages one last time before replacing it.
Looking to see if Mr Clarke had stirred, he then bent down to a lower shelf and removed René Belbenoit’s Dry Guillotine. Opening it, he saw that the space he’d hollowed out inside still contained a small package, wrapped in brown paper. He closed the book and transferred it to one of the carts, inserting it in the middle of a full row. Satisfied, he moved the carts out of the way and settled back for the afternoon rush, such as it was. Over the course of the next four hours convicts straggled in, looking for something to take them away from the prison for a few hours, a few days. In a way, I’m a bit like Manos, Marlow thought at one point: he distills and bottles his solution to the problem of the present, I hand mine out in little rectangular parcels. His business model is more profitable, he admitted. But mine is better.
His last visitor left shortly after 4:30pm. Marlow waited another fifteen minutes, and then went to the door of Mr Clarke’s office and coughed loudly, startling the man out of his siesta.
“Wah? I’m just resting my eyes here,” he said quickly, sitting up. Seeing that it was only Marlow, he relaxed and then looked at his clock.
“I’ve got two carts for seg and close custody, and then I thought I’d call it a day,” Marlow repeated the familiar closing lines of his daily drama.
“Okie dokie. I think I’ma head over to ODR and get some grub in me. Everything ship-shape?” “Oh, we’re leaking all over the place, but it’s no worse than normal.”
Clarke laughed. “Aight, then. Till mañana.” He still pronounced the word like “banana”, Marlow thought, even after roughly four thousand attempts at correction. Some things were beyond fixing, he thought. Just like everything else.
He slung his much emptier bag on top of one of the carts, and pushed one ahead of him while pulling the other behind. Three checkpoints, he thought, three and maybe the metal detector near the visitation room, if they were manning it. One last infiltration, and I’m out of it. The mesh bag laid out carefully in view on top of the cart should be tempting enough as a target if they chose to look at anything. Not much I can do about Ms Lopez, he thought, outside of that priming routine I ran on her this morning. She hardly ever looks at me anyways, he reasoned. He needn’t have worried: hardly anyone paid him a second glance as he moved from one side of the prison to the other. Before he left the second cart outside of T-Wing he removed a book from the top row and transferred it to his bag. Ms Lopez smiled at him as he returned to his wing. He held up the bag. “Heroin this time, I’m done with the coke.” She rolled her eyes at him and used her keys to open the crash-gate.
Just like that, he smiled inside as he walked towards the staircase. Just like that, and the backdoor pops right open. Now all he had to do was walk through it.
◆ ◆ ◆
Marlow’s euphoria at having successfully trounced the collective security regime of the entire prison was short-lived. Upon reaching his cell, he saw that Licky had returned from work and was laid out on his bunk, his head propped up on his pillow. His attention was focused on a celebrity tabloid, his fingers covered in red chili powder from the bag of pork skins he was munching on. Marlow almost made a joke about porcine cannibalism
but just barely managed to hold his tongue. “Feeling better?” he asked instead, tossing his mesh bag onto his own bunk.
“Gooder’n taters, better’n snuff, not nearly as dusty,” he responded, holding up a bottle filled with an orangish-red liquid. “Since somebody done bought me somethin’ to drink for the night. What was that for?”
“I’m about to hit on something. Thought I’d spread the wealth out a bit. Should come through tomorrow. In fact, I need to clear some space. You mind if I put some of my stuff in your locker?”
“Hell nah, that’s cool. If’n it’s edible, a little mouse may nibble on some of it, though,” Licky said, trying to look like he didn’t care what Marlow’s response was.
No wonder he loses so many stamps playing cards, Marlow thought. “Mouse bites are fine, T-Rex bites unacceptable,” he said as the cupboard squeaked open. He spent a few minutes transferring everything from his cabinet to Licky’s, leaving only a single orange juice can and a small manila envelope. All the spoils of a wasted life, he thought, as he stepped back to view his now empty locker. No sense in getting maudlin about it now, he reprimanded himself: the time for that had been three decades ago. Just a matter of hours left in this place anyhow. Thinking about having to pass those hours confined to the cell with Licky suddenly distressed him. On a whim he grabbed his jacket, hid the book he’d brought from work inside his mattress, and headed back down the run. He heard Licky call his name but he was far enough down that he could pretend otherwise.
It had been a few weeks since he’d hit the big yard. The politics out there was like the dayroom times fifty, and the reward was seldom worth the trouble. Still: better than having to listen to his cellie crunch through that bag of fried animal skins. “Anything a solo white boy should know?” he asked one of the armor-clad yard bosses who was processing convicts through the metal detector.
“Looks calm from here,” was all he would say, his mask making him sound like a low-rent version of Darth Vader.
“So does a tank filled with piranhas if it’s unlabeled,” he responded.
“Ain’t got time to babysit you. Shit or get off the pot,” the man made an impatient gesture with his arms. Marlow paused, biting back his retort, and then raised his own and submitted to a pat down before walking through the detector.
He knew enough to initially stick to the edges of the yard. Finding his way over to the track that ran in a drunken oval around the perimeter of the field, he began tracking the groups, feeling his way into the pattern. He felt he had a decent concept of the political map after a half-trip around the track; he was certain of it by the time he completed the circumference. He selected a decrepit set of bleachers firmly ensconced in no man’s land and took a seat, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his jacket.
The day could not have been grayer, the sky looking like an immense sheet of hammered lead. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore, he thought to himself as he took in the broad open space in front of him. He’d lived at newer prisons, where the architecture was hyper-focused on dividing larger groups into smaller ones for ease of control, Foucault taken to the level of fetishism. Huge expanses allowing for the congregation of hundreds of prisoners had become outré and then strongly frowned upon decades before he’d ever been born, and yet here it remained: the riot factory, 3.4 “incidents” per month since long before he’d pulled up on the Bluebird. A hundred or so stabbed up inmates a year did not merit the closure of an entire facility in the legislative calculus, after all.
The hardball courts were nearly empty of players, he noticed. Probably too cold, he figured. This hadn’t prevented the Letra’s soldiers from taking over the space, plus the adjoining tables. Three dozen Hispanics sat around, drinking bottles of what might have looked like orange juice to a civilian. Every once in a while someone would duck their head, do something furtive with their hands, and when they sat up and exhaled their breath condensed in oddly thick clouds. No one was fooled. So long as nobody was getting pieces of metal stuck in them, the administration didn’t really care. Those battles had been lost a long time ago, and none of the parties cared to renegotiate the peace.
There were basketball games in progress. He saw that the races were mixing – always nice to see, and not something guaranteed. It wasn’t that long ago that these courts would have been off-limits to anyone who wasn’t black. Capital-P-progress felt like a dead dream to him these days, but this had to count for something, he thought. Maybe in another generation or two human beings could actually survive intact in this place.
Roughly halfway across the yard stood the weight stacks, huge monstrosities of iron and steel. Swaggerthugs pre encased between sets, flexed muscles the lingua franca when living in the country of the Machiavellians. Thirty meters to the right: the restrooms, an ugly cinder block structure with a rusted tin roof that promised tetanus to anyone foolish enough to try to climb it in order to escape a riot. Men came and went at a pace that hinted at serious prostate or bladder issues, but that was entirely logical, entirely expected: since the restrooms were the one space not visible to the guards in the towers, that was where the old man ran the heart of his empire, the place where all the gangs and families and cliques set down their various principles and weapons and engaged in business, where just about anything could be bought or sold, including human lives: Galt’s Gulch meets Menzoberranzan. There were probably more cell phones concentrated in that small space than anywhere else in the county, Marlow knew. The wardens knew this as well, but they were also aware that the old man knew where they lived, where their kids went to school, so: détente, or laissez-faire capitalism in its purest distillation, depending upon one’s point of view or personal level of involvement.
Marlow exhaled, watching his breath fog in the cold metallic light. My little attempt to wage war against heat death, he thought: probably about as useful as any of my other battles against the forces of disorder. It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying, he thought, Winston’s quote still stubbornly clinging to his attention. It’s just that none of my quests ever produced any answers, just more questions. You keep trudging forward, amassing information, thinking at some point the haze will dissolve into something like wisdom, something true, some bedrock essences that are black and white. I looked, he thought, but all I ever found was more grayscale, finer and thinner slices of it, perhaps, but just more gray all the same. How did Winston do it? he wondered. He always seemed so secure in his place, as if he’d always just read the right book to answer whatever dilemma confronted him. How did anyone do it? How do people manage to convince themselves that they ever know enough to do much of anything? He sighed: who would have thought I’d have become Prufrock? It just seemed like the more one knew, the more complex reality became, the more complicated the decision tree on what the right move should be. Was the key that one just had to ignore reality to varying degrees? That sure would explain a hell of a lot, he acknowledged quietly. It was either that, or you just decide that you don’t give a damn, and do what you want. And I’ve seen where that leads, he thought: nowhere good.
Winston was wrong about one thing, he thought: his definition of hell was way off. All that metaphysical hogwash to the side, it’s really just a product of bad choices, good memory, and an active imagination: the ability to recall every rotten thing you ever did in this life and then imagine what happened because of it, exactly how much you hurt people, the way your actions rippled outward forever, like dropping an infinitely heavy stone into a vast body of water. Those echoes, those waves: you’d think they’d fade over time, some kind of inverse-square law for guilt or remorse, but they never do, they just keep rippling along, until it seemed he must have personally wounded every human being on the planet. No wonder I’ve grown so hesitant, he thought, leaning back in his seat. I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas, he quoted from memory, then shook his head at his own capacity for foolishness.
Prisoners grazed the yard, and he idly tracked them all, pattern recognition skills trained up almost to autistic levels. He saw motion in one of the gun towers, the guard inside settling closer to his space heater. A group of men passed in front of him on the track, each carrying the same blue book. They were centered on a tall man with long blond hair and sciurine features who was talking animatedly, punctuating his speech with soft pointing motions of his right hand. Just before the next curve they scattered around a thin black man as he walked towards and through their nucleus, seeming for all the world not to have noticed their existence. Marlow laughed inside at the indignant looks the pack gave the intruder after they recoalesced in his wake. They’d never say a word to him, he knew. No one would, not unless they were suicidal. If this place belonged to anyone, it was Slim, the old man’s vizier, gray cardinal, and Wizard of Oz all rolled into one sociopathic package. You’d never know it to look at him, though. That’s what made him so scary, Marlow concluded. That and all the bodies. Hard to ignore those.
The newcomer progressed slowly along the track until he was exactly even with Marlow, where he came to an abrupt stop. After a long pause he turned and walked directly towards the bleachers, causing a jogger to swerve out of his way. Marlow had sufficient time only to think oh, shit before the man vaulted up the seats and settled right next to him.
“Charles,” he greeted him, his voice gravelly.
“Theodore.” It had been at least a few years since he’d gotten this close to the man; Marlow noticed he now had a few gray hairs cropping up in his short afro.
“Been a minute since you graced us witchyo presence.”
“I’m sure you missed me,” he responded, his mind racing to figure out the reason behind this most abrupt violation of context. Big fish generally only hung around smaller ones for one reason, after all. He tried disarming the situation with humor: “How could I resist a front row seat to this little circus of yours?”
“Sheeeit. Ain’t my circus. For damn sure they not my monkeys.”
“Right.” Silence settled between them. Slim’s hands rested on his knees, the SELF MADE tattoos just visible on the dark skin of his fingers.
“So: when you goin’ home?”
Marlow snickered, trying to imbue the exhalation with as much dubiety as possible.
Slim smiled, and then began ticking items off his fingers. “All a sudden, debts is gettin’ cleared off my books, all friends of yours.” Second finger: “Protection fees for two years in advance with the Blast on old man Caballo, right up past his out-date.” Third – another finger – “Somebody paid 44 in the law library to file a writ on Cosmo’s case. I can’t prove that was you, but that’s only cuz I ain’t made it a priority to bump into the man yet. I bet if I went lookin’, I’d find out that beached whale of a cellie of yours is suddenly living in the black, too. Q, E, motherfucking-D,” he concluded, giving Marlow a long, penetrating look before returning his eyes to the yard.
Well, so much for secrecy, Marlow thought. Back when they had first lived on the same wing, he’d had to remind himself that the man’s form of speech was a mere affectation, a role he played as well as a sort of trap to make people underestimate him. It had been a long time since anyone had made that mistake. Slim probably had the highest IQ of anyone within a couple of dozen square miles, Marlow knew. Might as well not insult the man, he reasoned. It wasn’t like he was the gossiping type anyways. Shrugging visibly, he finally replied: “Soon.”
“They gave you parole?”
Marlow snorted. “Parole. Had lots of long, meaningful, tearful chats with those folks over the years.”
Slim grinned. “You tell them hoes the truth about everything?” His stress on that last word was that of a man who had just taken a long gander at your file and knew all sorts of unpleasant things about you.
Marlow paused. “I was accurate in everything I told them.”
“Oh. That what I asked?”
Marlow smiled – a real smile – to acknowledge the point. “Doesn’t matter. I’m not paroling.” Slim laughed. “Discharging? On a what?”
Slim laughed again, much longer this time, and clapped him on the bicep. “My niggah, discharging on a thirty. That’s what I’m talking about. Fuck that mercy shit.” He put his fingers to his lips and emitted a loud whistle. Seconds later a man stepped out of the restrooms complex and began scanning the yard for a moment before locating his boss on the bleachers. A short conversation flashed across the space in sign language, and the other man disappeared back inside.
“Always liked you. You kept to yo’self, stayed in yo’ lane. Can’t fight for shit but you lived in a way that earned respect without all that. When you couldn’t avoid trouble you got in there, though, showed you had some heart. Mostly, though, I liked you cuz you never come to me for shit. Can’t respect no man that’s got to ask me to solve his problems for him.”
“Probably not the sort of thing you should let your customers know. Disdain is not usually regarded as a good marketing technique.”
“Fuck my customers. They come to me cuz they got no other choice. They lack imagination, vision. They lazy. All them Aryan boys,” Slim waved towards the southern end of the yard, where the white power types had their camp. “They may talk all that SS-KKK shit, but they show up to our people when they wanna get high or get a jag or some pussy because my prices is fair, because I’m fair. Hell, half of them work for me anyways some kinda way, so you see what they ideology really worth. You, you wanted something, you just went out and got it, or you manned up and did without. You was subtle. I like subtle. Don’t think I didn’t know about that thing you had five, six years ago with the deliveries comin’ into the maintenance bays. All a sudden, you got money on yo’ books, you thought no one noticed? Shit was slick. That’s why I let it go, didn’t try take it from you or interfere. Call it professional respect.”
Marlow shook his head, embarrassed at being so exposed.
“Yeah, you cast shadows but you don’t live in shadows. Respect, white man,” the man said, clapping him again on the shoulder. “Not like these clowns,” he continued, nodding to the same group of inmates he’d run off the track earlier, just now completing a lap. “That’s the future right there,” he said ironically. “Guru-man got hisself some new converts, I see. He still doin’ that screaming thing used to drive the guards nuts?”
Marlow had to think for a moment before recalling what Slim was talking about. “The Wilhelm Reich thing? No, he quit that business a few years ago. He’s an Urantiite now.”
“Fuck is that?”
“Oh. Uh… Jesus was an alien, Earth is evil because of a galactic lawsuit between Lucifer and God. It gets crazier from there.”
“No shit?” Slim seemed to need a moment to process this. Shaking his head dismissively, he asked, “So what’s the count at now? He was a Christian when he rolled up.”
“Baptist, yeah. Then some kind of Pentecostal,” Marlow answered, trying to recall the exact order. “Then Jewish.”
“Yeah. We all recollect that shit.”
Marlow laughed. It felt good to do so. Everyone remembered the night Guru had tried to circumcise himself with the blade of a pencil sharpener. One tends not to forget the sight of a ghost-white man holding a bloody rag to his boxer shorts on his way to the ambulance, followed by a small storm cloud of grinning officers in riot gear. “Then came the thing with astral projection. I don’t really know what to call that.”
“Niggah told me my aura was red. Right there on the run.”
“Lucky you: mine was blue. I think Rudolf Steiner came next, then Reich. Now space Jesus.”
“Guess he got a few more to go before he can truly cover all the bases. He start parading around on some African tribal shit the Zulus’ll beat his ass up.”
“He still has Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism before he has to go looking for anything more exotic than the current nonsense. Hell, before he’s done he might even become a high priest of capitalism and join your ranks.”
“I could get behind that,” Slim said, stretching his legs out.
“Much easier to cut his throat from back there. Which is exactly what will happen if he try to step into my world. I said I was fair. Ain’t said shit about being nice.”
Marlow had never learned the vocabulary to have these kinds of conversations, so he didn’t say anything at all for a while. Finally, he nodded towards Guru and his flock. “You think any of it is sincere?”
“Man took a blade to his junk, Charles. Niggah’s committed. In both senses of the word.”
“Yeah. I guess,” Marlow conceded the point. “It’s just—his shtick has always seemed less a search for god than a search for a higher form of selfishness. But even within the selfishness, he always seems so… I don’t know, so sure of himself. I don’t quite know how he does it.”
Slim raised an eyebrow at him and then shook his head. “There’s yo’ problem, right there,” he said, pointing a finger at him and then jabbing him in the knee. “You is always overcomplicatin’ shit. Sometimes that’s good,” he added, talking over Marlow’s incipient objection. “Probably serves you well in the library, translating Game of Thrones into Klingon, or whatever it is you niggahs do in there.”
“I don’t know a single word of Klingon,” Marlow spluttered.
“You and Guru-man got that complexity thing in common, though you handle it different. He finds comfort in the murkiness, you just get lost. I’m tempted to say it must be a white folk thing but you ain’t got a monopoly on that shit. Humans always gotta be writing shit all over the glass instead of just looking through the motherfucker. It’s all about parsimony, you feel me? When I am confronted by a situation where I got multiple explanations for a cause, I always go with the one wit’ the fewest assumptions. Occam, Hume, all that,” he gave Marlow a hard look, letting his mask slip a bit, waiting for the typical comment of disbelief or surprise when he displayed his ability to read. When Marlow said nothing, he nodded at Guru’s clique. “He multiplies the assumptions to the point that nobody understand it but him, and then he finds a way to market that shit so people adore him. How many commandments his alien-Jesus got? How complicated is that shit? I’m betting it’s much harder to understand than your basic Bible stuff.”
“I don’t know. There are 613 mitzvoth in the –”
“Ten, 613, forty-two: that’s all bullshit. That’s man shit, that’s writing on the glass. That’s assumptions built on assumptions, ignorance on ignorance, that’s correlation and causation gettin’ mixed up and producing apophenia. That’s just confusion and terror trying to cover itself up in the cold.” Slim took a deep breath, looking across the yard. “You, you went the other way, decided it was all bullshit, but rather than allowing this to power some decisions, to make you decisive and focused, you never left the stacks, you still wandering all through them hoes looking for some kinda esoteric solution, instead of just realizing how simple shit really is. Look,” he said after a brief pause, “when I was a kid, Russians used to control my ‘hood. That was before we ran they ass out. All us young niggahs wanted to work for them, though. They had the cars, the hoes. They top man in the district was a blimp they call Boris Mercedes. Not even his real name, just what we all called him, even though he drove a Jeep. I used to run numbers for him, then managed a trap house. One night, we was at one of his clubs, in the back. He been drinking for hours, so I just ask him what his secret to success was. See, I’m not even fifteen, but I’m figuring things, like how to take what he got. The man just laughs at me, and ignores me. I figure he forgot about the conversation.” Slim again stretched his legs out on the bleachers, and looked up at the nearest gun tower for a moment.
“A couple of weeks later, we was in his car in the nice part of the city. Boris pull up to this high-rise – you know the type: got the doorman, a nice Bentley out front, trophy wife walking into the lobby with a poodle, all that shit. He just watch the place for a while, and then he ask me if I really want to know the answer to my question. He real serious, almost sad-like. I say sure, that’s why I ask it. He never looks at me, he just steady staring at this building like he planning on burning it down. He ask me to think about the worst thing that any person could ever do to another. I start to say something but he stop me, tells me whatever I was gonna say, it wasn’t the worst thing, that I’d need to think about it for a while, maybe weeks. Then he say, whenever I figure it out, to realize that all ‘round us was people that would pay a mountain of money to do that to someone else, so long as they could get away wit’ it. That’s all he said, and about ten minutes later, we drive off.” Slim poked Marlow in the knee again. “I thought he was full of shit. But the thing is, that shit, it kinda worm its way into you, like. You can’t quite get it outcho head. You start lookin’ at people, wondering which of them niggahs is the kind to do some of that shit. And then you get older and you see proof. You realize that some of those motherfuckers don’t look like monsters. Some of them live in high-rises. You figure out that the world really is that sick, that some fools really will pay just about anything to live out they sick fantasy. It was a kind of poison Boris gave me. It made me into him. So when I hear about god-this and god-that, I know that whatever god is, it got only one rule, law, whatever: take whatever you want, and then pay for that shit. All the rest is masturbation.”
Marlow grunted, sitting back. Christ, he thought, I’ll think of a good response to that later. Or I would if this were a normal day. This will be the last time I have to lose an argument to someone peddling a reductivist or sociopathic worldview, he realized: thank the empty heavens. It was hard to decide which Weltanschauung he liked least, Guru’s counterfeit desire for a unio mystica with his god or Slim’s projection of his own ruthlessness onto the cosmos. No wonder he never hesitates, though. Still: parsimony was one thing, pistol-whipping reality until it obeys a man’s will another. Or at least I hope it is, he added ruefully, or humanity is fucked.
Motion attracted his attention. A man in a green jacket had just entered the yard complex and was jogging in their direction. Slim followed Marlow’s gaze.
“Ah,” he exhaled. “Settle yo’self. That’s just Ras Adwa. Go easy on the bruthah. They made him cut eight inches off his dreads and he’s been ready to cut somebody for a couple weeks now.”
The man arrived slightly out of breath. From inside his jacket he produced a large stainless steel thermos and two cups. The fact that he’d managed to get this obvious contraband past the detector was a kind of message, Marlow thought. So were the pair of phones obviously utilized to make this delivery possible.
“You use the French press?” Slim asked.
“And the good water, the shit in the blue bottles?”
“Is not the first time I do this, mahn.”
“Thank you, Rastaman. Gone and tell Tre to hook you up with that new shit we got, the Indian shit. He’s at the office,” Slim said, nodding towards the restrooms. The man left at a slower pace than he’d arrived. “A little gift for yo’ departure.” He poured a dark steaming stream into a cup, and then held it out for Marlow to take. For about half a second Marlow was able to maintain the thought that his coffee hook-up was probably better than Slim’s, until the liquid actually impacted his tongue.
“Oh… wow,” was all he could think to say.
“Yeah. While you niggahs was watching shadows on Plato’s cave wall of people drinking coffee, the man in front of the fire was downing cups of this shit: Black Ivory, from Thailand. Arabica beans. Elephants eat them up, process the beans in they gut, does all kinds of good shit to the proteins. Great boron to manganese ratio in the soil there, too.”
Marlow’s mouth hung slightly ajar upon hearing all of this. Slim looked indignant. “What, a niggah can’t know terroir? Need I remind you which of us had ancestors that lived and died working soil?”
“We’re drinking elephant crap coffee?” Marlow asked. Seeing Slim nod, he took another sip. “My compliments to the trunked ones. This is good shit. Literally.”
“For five hundred bucks a pound, it better be.”
Marlow choked and nearly spit out the contents of his mouth.
“Easy there. You probably got more money in yo’ gabber right now than you do in the cell.”
“Jesus,” Marlow coughed, clearing his throat. I used to actually believe we were all in the same boat back here, he thought. What a fool I’ve been. We’re all in the same flood; his boat’s a hell of a lot better.
The pair sat for a time in silence, drinking their liquid gold. Marlow watched the steam rise out of his cup and disappear a few inches later. What does it mean, he wondered, when even a perfectly gray world still had too much color in it? He didn’t dare ask Slim, not wanting to hear another discourse that would leave him feeling as if he’d been run through an autoclave. All he would have told him was the truth: that it meant the prison had done its work well, and he didn’t need to hear that from anyone else to know the extent of the damage done. Eventually, a tall white man with facial tats stuck his head out of the restrooms, located Slim, and flashed him a signal. The man sighed, and then placed the cap on his thermos. “Go home, Charles,” he said, standing. “You survived, so I don’t really got no place giving you advice. But since I’m here and this is the last time we’ll speak in this life, try to simplify yo’ views. Hesitate less. Our time here is limited. Nuance is everywhere and it might be nice to talk about at a café, but you gotta compartmentalize that shit. Know when to cut through it. Think: Alexander and his knot.” He leaned in. “If you can’t sum up yo’ whole purpose for life or even just the day in less than ten words, you got some cuttin’ to do.”
Marlow stood, handing over his empty cup. “I don’t think I buy that,” he admitted.
Slim smiled. “I know. That’s why you is you and I is I, why you is dischargin’, while I – well, my story is not complete. I’m not even halfway yet, and I got some real plans for the later pages. Gone be real excitin’, I promise you. Good luck to you, library-man.” He held his hand out. Charles took it.
“Your raison d’être in ten words or less.”
Slim’s smile turned off as if the universe had thrown a switch. His eyes flattened, and it was like his gaze channeled the cold air of the day into a laser-focused arctic blast. Still gripping Marlow’s hand, he leaned in slightly, his voice a mere whisper. “I only need two, Charles. As it happen, they come from Boris too, though he shoulda remembered them better: Laugh. Last.” With his other hand, he reached out and tapped Marlow’s cheek with something metallic. Marlow resisted the urge to flinch, just kept his eyes locked on Slim’s. They remained connected in this strange embrace for what seemed like an eternity, until Slim abruptly spun and walked briskly towards the restrooms, his hands twirling something long and slender before making it disappear up one of his jacket’s sleeves.
Marlow stood there, listening to the wind as it whispered an old story through the chain-link fence, waiting for his heart rate to return to normal. Go home, the man had commanded him. Where’s that, Slim? he wanted to ask, trying to dispel the moment by having some kind of last word. Looking around, he was suddenly done with everything in a way that felt comforting, like Slim had jabbed him with his blade and now all his will was leaking out in a pool around his feet. He didn’t even take a last look at the yard as he stepped his way down the bleachers and trudged back towards his building.
The ruckus in the dayroom snapped him partially out of his muddle, the aural assault rolling over him as he entered his wing. He completed a quick count of the men inside the cage: nearly sixty, a full house. He saw Licky firmly ensconced amongst the older white crowd, watching something on the television. Near his feet stood a bottle. Good, Marlow thought. He climbed the stairs quickly, still feeling partially numb and very light, though whether from the chill outside, Slim’s sandblasting chatter, or the enormity of the day he couldn’t tell and no longer cared. He continued walking past his own cell when he reached his tier until he located Ironwood’s house. The man was tattooing a guy from the next wing – Hooligan, he thought he called himself, or some other such fitting and yet simultaneously moronic moniker. “Got something for me?” he asked, leaning against the bars to get a closer view of ‘Wood’s work. Thor. Typical, he thought, though he refrained from offering his opinion out loud.
“Marlow,” he said, looking up, the insistent buzzing of his homemade rig cutting off. “Yeah, hold up.” He stood and then rummaged around in his cabinet for a moment, before handing Marlow a short metallic cylinder. He could feel something dense and slightly viscous moving slowly about inside.
“Li said to tell you that it would burn clean, it’s good grease.”
“I appreciate it, ‘Wood. I owe you anything else?”
“Nah, we square.”
I’m about to be, he thought. Or as close as I’m likely to come to such a thing. “Okay, you two have a good night, then. Thor looks good,” he added, nodding toward the man’s back. One more lie to account for, he thought as he returned to his cell. One last lie, he corrected himself as he opened his locker and removed a manila envelope. Inside was an even smaller envelope containing four pink capsules. He took a quick glance outside the cell before ducking back inside and locating the three bottles of hooch that Licky had stashed behind his mattress. He popped the capsules open and dumped the contents evenly into each.
From the envelope he now removed a pair of paperclips and twelve inches or so of rough cotton string. Sitting back on his bunk, he carefully bent and wrapped the clips until they formed a sort of tripod, with a single extension pointed directly vertical. This he carefully wrapped in the string until he was satisfied. He popped open the canister his man in the kitchen had sent and settled the wick down into the grease; sure enough, he could see the liquid moving slowly, osmotically up the structure. Once it had become saturated he returned to the envelope, removing a piece of graphite he’d taken from a colored pencil and a razorblade with a thin wire wrapped around one end that extended downward for ten inches. Using this contraption, his electrical outlet, and a piece of rolled up toilet paper, he had his homemade candle burning in short order. He sat for a few moments, watching the little bud of light flicker and cast shadows on the wall. On some level he knew the thing was pretty, but the part of his mind that connected him to such thoughts was no longer online. He placed the candle inside his cupboard, and removed his last can of orange juice. He dumped the contents of this into his cup, and used a pencil sharpener blade to cut away the bottom inch or so of the can. This he also placed in his cupboard, and tossed the rest out onto the run.
That’s it, he thought, sitting back on his mattress. He still felt light, shallow, like a ship that had dumped its cargo overboard in an attempt to survive a rough storm. Was this normal? Surely I should feel something more than this? How many times have I thought about this day? Tried to gauge whether I would feel tiny bubbles of fear or joy or anxiety, something, something, anything. And yet: all I can really detect is exhaustion, he thought. Thirty years of fear, self-loathing, and shock tossed into an endless blender; maybe I’m just burnt out, finally. Thirty years of habits, of not allowing myself to pursue some tiny shred of happiness or mental escape. Thirty years of walking on eggshells, of trying to find out where I was supposed to fit in a world I could never fit into, not ever, not if I had a sentence of a million years. Thirty years of making plans, of late nights spent devising strategies, of mapping quadratic expansions of response possibilities, of thinking n moves ahead where n was a hyperbolic function limited by the sinh of the department’s most recent barbaric policy and the cosh the number of psychopathic thugs in my vicinity, thirty years of dreams for the library, for hopes for scamming something decent to eat when the chow hall slop wasn’t fit for human consumption, for filling my time with activities worthy of basic dignity and meaning. Thirty years of hoping to find some tiny shred of wisdom that might have justified some portion of all of this. More than sixty percent of my life, he calculated. Every day living like some bean-counting god or essence was shifting stones on an abacus, calculating payment, even as my faith in such a deity faded into the zero, even as my hopes for rebirth withered and died. Was it enough? That was the question, the only thing that mattered. Honest now, he thought. Don’t shrink away from it here, at the end: was it enough to counter the damage done? Marlow sat there for a long time, staring at the wall, at the faded pronouncements of past inmates carved or written into the concrete.
Idly, still lost in thought, he bent over and removed his last book from the inside of his mattress. He traced his fingers along its spine. Probably not, he decided at last. It probably couldn’t ever be enough. For some prisoners, maybe even most; not for me. Maybe that’s the reason Tertullian and company got so much joy out of thinking about the eternal suffering of the damned. Maybe they understood guilt better than I ever credited. I sure tried to be worthy of all of this, though. That’s about the best that can be said about me or for me. That and that I haven’t done any damage to the people I care about for a long time now, haven’t been a burden like some of these clowns, always writing or calling home for handouts. There was some relief that he wouldn’t ever be able to disappoint any of them again after this night.
That thought actually brought a small smile to his lips. What was left? Some words, maybe, to mark his departure. He’d certainly read enough of them over the years. Probably too many of them, he decided, since none of them seemed immediately appropriate. This didn’t really surprise him. Nothing was ever perfect in this place, so he’d given up long ago on expecting mots juste to arrive exactly on time. What were those John Gay lines? Life is a jest, and all things show it; I thought so once, but now I know it…? Something like that. Not serious enough, he decided. Maybe that stuff from The Tempest about being made of dream-stuff, he thought: that felt closer to the truth. Definitely not Hamlet’s crap about being king of infinite space whilst bounded in a nutshell. Old William never could have imagined what a life in prison would do to a person. He took a sip of orange juice, thinking about that Midnight Oil song about the cannibals wearing smart suits and arm-wrestling on the altar, and he hummed one of its lines out loud, “And I say, don’t leave your heart in a hard place.” I’m not, he thought. I never have exposed my heart to this place. I did that part right. I came here broken but I never let this environment inside where it could break me even more. That should count for something, though he figured it wouldn’t to anyone who hadn’t spent at least a few years in these halls.
It came to him. He searched through Licky’s property, trying to locate a pen. I should have known it was going to be Beckett, he thought: nobody understood better the way a sentence of time could destroy a man, the way nothing was more real than nothing. In small letters near the door he began to write:
to and fro in shadow
from inner to outer shadow
from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself
by way of neither
He sat back to review his penmanship. That wasn’t exactly perfect, he decided, but it was good enough. He added his initials and his out-date. Close enough, he repeated to himself.
Somewhere down on Three-Row he heard a female voice yelling. He looked at his clock: 10:22pm, rack up time. He was surprised to see it was that late; he must have been staring at the wall for quite a while. He began to hear the low thumping beats of shoes marching up the stairs. Figures moved past, eclipsing the security lights. Licky eventually appeared, a slight leaning in his posture the only indication of the state of his inebriation. That lean would become quite a bit more pronounced, he thought, as soon as that 200 milligrams of Benadryl hits him.
“Lo, cellie,” the man greeted him warmly.
“Lo, Licky. You’re looking well. Content.”
“Just gonna give ourselves a bit of damp and somethin’ for my teeths to work on, and I’ll be superb.”
“Knock yourself out,” Marlow responded as he watched the awkward process of Licky defying gravity long enough to plop himself onto the upper bunk.
“That any good?” Licky asked from above.
“That book you was holding.”
Marlow looked down at the cover. “It’s about a man who escapes from a penal colony,” he said at last. “Hell yeah, I gotta read that when you done with it.”
Marlow could hear the man rummaging around in his cupboard, the sounds of a plastic bag being torn open. He really is content, he thought. It’s not an act. Fat, drunk, ignorant, tribal: he’s a happy little goldfish swimming around in a tiny bowl, with zero concept of the limits of his universe, and never will until someone drops the bowl. And how is that any different than you? he asked himself. You may see the room beyond the glass, but you are just as stuck as he is, just as annihilated once gravity takes over and proceeds to smash everything. I picked the wrong Beckett quote, he realized instantly. I should have used Bam’s closing words from What Where: Time passes. That is all. Make sense who may. I switch off.
He settled against the wall, listening as the prison slowly relaxed into silence. He waited a full hour before checking on Licky. Yep, he saw: out like a light. “Bye, Licky,” he whispered to himself. He wasn’t going to have a great wake-up call, whenever someone finally figures out what has happened, he thought. Maybe this will shock him into thinking about something other than sticking things into his face.
Opening his cupboard, he removed the candle, still dancing along, and set it on his mattress. He placed the bottom section of the aluminum can next to this. Opening the book, he carefully removed the contents and started to unpack them: a tiny plastic baggie filled with a dark substance, a cotton ball, and a syringe. He opened the former and dumped the contents into the can, and then added a bit of water from the sink. He’d imagined this moment for more than two decades. Still no fear, he concluded, a little pleased with himself. I think I’ve just seen this in my head too many times now to get excited. Or maybe you just have to value yourself to be afraid.
He wrapped a sock around the edges of the can, and held the bottom over the flame. Almost instantly the heroin started to break down, tiny bubbles forming as it mixed with the water. With almost two grams, he knew he didn’t have to be careful with the proportions. He dropped the cotton ball in the middle of the can, saw it soak up the liquid, his freedom. He placed the tip of the needle into this, and watched as it filled up when he drew back on the plunger. Let it cool, he’d been told, so it doesn’t burn the veins. Like that mattered, he thought, as he tossed the can out under the door. He watched the candle flicker for another few minutes.
I don’t believe in you, he said to himself, directing his thoughts to places he could no longer name. If I’m wrong, though, if there’s something that corresponds to a mind responsible for all of this: I was a messed up kid. I did something horrible but it wasn’t the true measure of who I was. I don’t even understand that person anymore; he’s as alien to me as it’s possible for someone who shares my name to be. Regardless, I still paid for it, for all of it. I never asked you or anyone else to carry my cross. I’ve never understood how anyone could ever think of such vicarious payments for trespass to be moral. I’ve tortured myself the best way I knew how, he nearly screamed. If that’s not good enough, then fuck you and the horse you rode in on.
He picked up the needle, inserted it into his left arm. In the flickering light, he could see a tiny spurt of blood flood into the chamber of the syringe. He leaned over and pinched the candle out, and then did the only thing he could think of to finally get even with the house.
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