Eric Miles Webb was awarded the Dawson Prize in Essay in the 2017 Prison Writing Contest. Webb is currently incarcerated at Waupon Correctional Institution in Wisconsin.

Every year, hundreds of inmates from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On November 28, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading, Breakout: Voices from the Inside. Participants including 2016 PEN/Bellwether Award-winner Lisa Ko and 2010 National Book Award-winner Terrance Hayes will read from the prize-winning manuscripts.

As I lay down on a bed, nurses, doctors, and specialists of all sorts coming into my small room, almost to the point of me feeling claustrophobic, asking me damn near the same questions. For instance, “Have you ever engaged in any sexual behavior with a member of your same sex?” “Have you ever had a sexually transmitted disease?” “Does anyone in your family have a history of heart trouble?” . . . Blah blah blah. I just want it all to end. I am a healthy black male in the prime of my life just wanting to do the right thing for a change. Because let me tell you, this is not my first time being jammed up. I’ve always been the black sheep of the family. The one everyone went to go get when they wanted something done. Whether it was rent money, a car note, or if someone disrespected them. Eric came through in the clutch with all the necessary to get the necessary done. No one hurt my family. Well . . . except me.

Sixteen months I have been waiting for this surgery to take place. So finally after the cutting of red tape, my people having to pay for the guards’ overtime and basically pay for the whole process, the time has come. My doctor, Ms. Sors, is a very attractive white woman in her late 40s with an elfin face and a pixie haircut to match. I could tell after a while that even three rooms away, it was her by the sharp clack-clack of her Manolo Blahnik pumps.

She gives me the perfect out. “If you are having any apprehensions about doing this, now is the time to tell me. I will personally tell your uncle Roosevelt that something abnormal came up in one of the final test results so we have to cancel the procedure. No one will know except us.” (And the two lunks over there standing against the wall. The lunks whose paychecks will be a little heavier thanks to me. I say in my head.) “I’m good. Let’s just get this done. I’m a little bit nervous but I am ready,” I say.

So after a final examination of my male frontal parts and my exit part, everything is ok and ready to proceed. I wanted to tell Ms. Sors that she is the first and last person, if I can help it, who has felt my balls for a hernia or stuck their finger up my ass to check my prostate in one visit that I didn’t pay for or didn’t get taken out to dinner first. But that probably would have been too much considering my predicament. I can also tell by her demeanor that she would not do what I’m about to do today. In her defense, who in their right mind would? Even my uncle’s own children would not do this one thing for their father. Who’d tempt death like this? Oh yeah. Me. Mister all or nothing thinker himself. I’m having major surgery. One could die doing this. A slip of the knife and ol’ Eric is a gonner y’all. So here I am again at the craps table of life putting my money down on the hard eight saying to all within earshot, “Someone please pass me the dice.”

I’m now being wheeled around U.W. Madison hospital with my entourage of two male blue-shirted correctional officers, Ms. Sors, and a male nurse in shamrock green scrubs who is pushing me with a constant graduation day smile on his face like he is somehow proud of me or is happy to be with me instead of cleaning bed pans or something else that demeaning. All the “regular” people stare at me. I’m handcuffed, shackled, exhausted, frustrated both regularly and sexually, and embarrassed for myself. I’m dressed in an all too revealing paper-thin gown with no underwear on and some white nylon stockings on my legs and feet to prevent blood clots they say. All that’s missing on me is one of those floppy dunce caps with a fluffy ball on the end of it, one people used to wear to bed back in the early ‘20s and ‘30s, to complete my shame. I came to this hospital in some fresh, crispy green institution pants with a brand new matching green button up shirt. It’s my institution ensemble. Everyone in the joint has to wear a green shirt and pants. The only difference is that some people have a set that they only wear on special occasions like on a visit, taking photos, or in our minds to make a good impression on a new people that we might meet that may like us.

Two correctional officers escort me wherever I go. They have no name tags on that I’ve seen. One is on my nine o’clock and the other is on my six o’clock. They rotated positions depending on which direction I went. I thought it was kind of slick. Their alert emotionless movements made me think that they both served in some branch of the military. To them, I was an insurgent. Maybe not even human. Just someone trying to get over on them and the system. And their job was to see that I didn’t in any way, no matter why I’m here. You’d think that they would have relaxed a bit. But no.

Prophet (my nickname) is scared y’all. But who can I tell without seeming like a punk? No one is here to comfort me. To hold my hand through this ordeal or tell me that everything will be alright. My family lost contact with me long ago. Out of sight, out of mind is all that is. My two sons are off doing their own thing. I couldn’t, to be honest, tell you if they are alive or dead. I had more love for the streets and the hustle than my family life. I had a good woman on my team. Had being the key word. I did her super wrong and the crazy part of it all is that I didn’t have to run the streets. Baby girl treated me real good. She was older than me and wiser by far. She showed me how to hobnob with the upper class of society. I brushed shoulders and shook hands with mayors, clergy members, aldermen and women, and other major movers and shakers of Racine County in Wisconsin. But I’d rather smoke blunts and sell narcotics. I loved her but was too much of a coward to tell her that I wasn’t feeling her like that any more. So we stayed together in a dysfunctional relationship, which our son together and her son by another man before picked up on and, in doing so, picked a side. And on another complicated level, I stayed with her because I thought that she’d stay the same, the girl who smoked weed with me as we soaked in the bathtub together laughing our asses off. She stayed because she thought that I would change. I digress.

I’m in the surgical room now, the last stop. A male doctor named Chin asks me if I want to make a last will and testament. I almost lose my resolve! What the hell is he talking about? You just can’t come out and say shit like that to a brotha. Where is Yelp in situation like this? This could be some undercover back alley, needing to be on an episode of Criminal Minds type of shit. An inmate chop shop, one stop spot. I guess that he can read the questions running through my mind by the expression on my face because he begins to explain the protocol for everything that is about to happen. OK then, that’s more like it. Put some respect on that shit man is all I’m saying. I did decide to give my television to my best guy back at the institution. My radio would go to my other guy. I only have the two. Because true friendship is hard to come by in prison. Some will take your kindness for weakness and try to exploit any crack in your persona. In my book, a true friend will give you his last and won’t keep a count of favors done. Because he knows that I will do the same. All of my reading material and writings will be donated to the prison library to be enjoyed or disliked. Any money on my canteen account will be sent to my mother.

I do not want to die. I cannot die. A brotha like me, I’m supposed to go out like most males my age. In a barrage of gunfire, undoubtedly by the hands of another black male with the venom of a controlled substance devouring my senses equivalent to a lethal injection, until I’m inevitably slumped over covered in my own vomit, but not before I’m stripped of everything of value that I have on my person.

All of the nurses and others in starch white coats are telling me how noble I am for doing this. But I do not know any of these people so their opinion really doesn’t matter to me. I’m just being honest. I’m only doing what a family member is supposed to do. Unconditional love y’all. Hello!? But I’m the criminal. I just give them all one of those tight-lipped grins and say thanks. Noble. Yeah right. I sure don’t feel noble with my junk all willy-nilly out in this flimsy ass gown. One wrong move and everyone within 20 feet of me will be able to see what I’m working with. Not that I mind. I’m just saying.

Another tall, skinny, and very tan doctor comes into my room and makes small talk about the Green Bay Packers football team. The man even has a green and gold bow tie on. I reference the Chicago Bears and their amazing Super Bowl run only to lose to the Indianapolis Colts. He pokes me hard in my side with a needle that to me looks like a railroad tie. Bastard! He then puts his initials on the lower left side of my abdomen where the procedure will take place. After he left, a fine, I mean on a scale of one to ten, she had to be a thirteen, female doctor came in to further explain the whole process and to see if in my own words, everything that had to be done was and to see if I still wanted to continue. I was too blinded by her beauty to hear much less understand what she was saying. In my eyes, her blond hair and crystal clear blue eyes dancing behind the glasses on her face was only an appetizer to my belly of love. She stood about five foot seven and had the body to be in a rap video. Baby had back! She was sort of a husky and chunky girl all in one. But she carried her weight well. Her voice, authoritative and sexy. She had shapely legs like a tennis pro and arms that looked like they could throw a solid punch if need be. The only word I understood out of her mouth was “complications.” Which, in my mind, thought that she was talking about how we were going to be together despite my current situation. But I came out of my trance. Hold up. Time out. Flag on the play. If anything went wrong, the surgical doctor would have to cut across my whole stomach and open me up like a rubber change purse instead of the way that was explained to me which was with a laparoscope. With all that being said and understood by me, I was back in my fantasy world. She sat on the bed next to me and stroked my hands. And right then, I could care less about complications. She is all smiles. I am all smiles. The lunks all frown. Haters. Another female, less good looking, comes in to administer the final shot that will put me to sleep. The beautiful mother of my future kids tells me to count backwards from 10. Why? Why not tell patients to go to a special place in their mind until they wake? Because Lord forbid, if I don’t wake up, I would want my last memory to be of my living it up to the fullest whether it be real or imagined. I don’t want my last memory to be a math problem. Six was the last number that I remember.

I slowly awaken. My head is throbbing; my mouth is dry. My whole body is sore. My stomach is heavily bandaged. I feel like a soldier returning from a two-day battle of mostly hand-to-hand combat. But with the morphine racing through my body like a NASCAR on Sunoco fuel, I am bearing the pain. I can’t stop itching! My toes itch the worst and I can’t bend over to get at them properly. I use the big toe of my opposite foot to get in between toes. I’m doing my best but it’s not getting the job done effectively. I’m all alone. The blinds are ajar. It’s dark outside. It smells like rain. It’s quiet except for the slow hum of a wall-mounted cooling system. Where is my entourage? Is this heaven? . . . Hell? I push the call button for a nurse. Maybe he, she, or it can tell me what is going on. My two-man escort comes in with a female nurse who is surprisingly good-looking. But she pales in comparison to my future baby momma from a paragraph before. This new nurse wants me to rate my pain. One being a little pain and ten being extreme pain. I tell her that I’m at an 11. She then produces two white pills from her pocket like magic and gives them to me with a glass of water. Ahhh! She even reluctantly helps to scratch my toes. She didn’t want to, but I asked real nice like and my coy smile was the question mark that helped persuade her. I feel hungry but I cannot eat yet, I’m told. She tells me that my bowels will be the last thing to wake up. She then gives me an apparatus and tells me to blow in it occasionally for this will help speed up the process of me getting back to normal.

Dr. Chin comes in and tells me that everything went well, that there were no complications, and that I should be back to my old self in about a month or so. He reminds me to blow into the contraption because it will help wake up my bowels. Oh OK. Now I understand. I was confused at first as to how this was part of my treatment plan. I ask Dr. Chin if my uncle Roosevelt is alright. He looks at my lunks and they tell me that Roosevelt made it through the surgery also and is currently ok. And this is all that they can tell me. Whatever.

I stayed in the hospital for a total of three days. I watched a lot of television but didn’t see the love of my life any more. I also stayed in a semi-conscious state due to the drugs which allowed me plenty of time to daydream about my upcoming nuptial.

Now I’m back in prison. Back in my eight by ten cell of concrete and steel. I have an extra pillow, mattress, and a plastic chair to sit on instead of the hard ass metal stool that is attached to the wall. The nurses are treating me more like a medical monkey than a medical miracle. The “administration” and the like all want to see the inmate who donated his kidney. The “convicts” want to know how I got permission to donate a kidney. And on a pathological perspective, want to ease their own guilt by saying that they would donate if the opportunity presented itself.

I can only walk around if I’m hunched over and holding my belly. It hurts a lot. The pills do me some justice, but I am not trying to get addicted to them. I finally have a bowel movement after a week of constipation. (Even my penis wouldn’t work. I was tempted to call one of those accident lawyers that advertise on television to sue somebody.) My ass felt like the end of an elephant gun that you would see in a cartoon with the barrel looking like the speaker on a phonograph.

I’m slowly getting better. I’ve lost about 20 pounds, which I could have stood to lose anyway. My hunched over walk has turned into a shuffle. The prison nurses are treating me kinder now, and when I see them outside of their offices, they ask me how my uncle Roosevelt is doing. I lie and tell them that he is fine. I’m sort of like a folk hero to some. I’ve told the story of donating my kidney so many times to so many people . . . It’s crazy. I feel like Kevin Costner telling the Tatanka story in that movie, Dances With Wolves.

It has been two months now. I can walk around the prison with my head held high and some pep in my step. Everyone knows me. If they don’t, someone tells them about me or tells them about what they heard I did. I wait daily for some mail to come. It would be too much to expect a visit even though he and his wife are on my visiting list. Rockford, IL, is only about three and a half hours away. It’s not like he cannot make the trek. Maybe a card then. Does Hallmark make a card to commemorate this type of thing? Nothing comes, hmmm. Another week, month, couple of months . . . nothing. I cannot lie and say that I’m not a little mad, even upset and angry. I at least expected a thank you. Maybe I’m expecting too much? I didn’t do this for money or recognition. I honestly did it because I felt that it was the right thing to do. I have the two kidneys. I can live with one. That math is a no-brainer. A brotha could have died though. This girl that I’m doing the pen-pal thing with hit him up on Facebook. He accepted her friend request, but did not respond when she made mention of me. So now I’m thinking that I’ve been used. A pawn sacrificed for a greater good. But then again, I could be upset for all the wrong reasons. My uncle Roosevelt is a good man. He is a college graduate, an Army man, a social worker, a devoted husband and father . . . the accolades are astounding. He is more of a man than I ever was to be honest. But can you blame me for a feeling some type of way?

I am a prisoner doing hard time. Six years, eight months, ten days, and seventeen hours to be exact. My inner good guy leads me to believe that I was convicted of my crime, got sentenced, and was therefore in a position to be able-bodied enough to give “the gift of life.” A selfless act is what the media I received says. My ex-girlfriend would not believe that I donated a kidney even if I let her put her fingers in my wounds like Thomas or if I showed her the certificate they gave me or if the medal had my photo on the other side like I was Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. It is one of the main reasons she would say that she is my ex. Trust.

I am convinced that GOD has a plan for my life. But did he have to give me a life sentence to get my attention? Who am I to question the “PLAN.” HE works in his own time. HE also says that HE won’t give me anything I can’t handle.

Nine years later . . . I’m chillin’ out on my bunk reading my Proverbs for the day. Chapter 31 verses 10–31. The prose speaks to me in a very profound way. It hits on most of the attributes that a woman I find attractive would have: a dash of R. Kelly’s “Homie Lover Friend,” a hint of Bryant McKnight’s “Crazy Love,” and wrapped all up in a John Legend’s “All of Me.” As I am meditating on this, an envelope drops in my cell. So I get up to inspect the contents because I’m really not expecting anything. Maybe it’s a money order or some kind words from a long-lost friend wanting to reconnect. But no. It’s a letter from my father’s ex-wife. In it is an obituary. On the front of the obituary is a photo of my uncle Roosevelt at a young age. “In memoriam” is on the top. I can see the date that he died.

Eight years ago. And this is the first time that I’ve heard about it? Wow. Really? This has to be a joke. A cruel, cruel joke. And to further get my goad, there is no mention of the sacrifice I made to help. But there is a thank you to the nurses in Madison, Wisconsin. I’m hurt. I can’t even cry because true enough, I loved my uncle and blood is thick, but I can’t even grieve right. I’m in a difficult position. Taking the “ME” out of the picture, how is the family doing? I don’t correspond with anyone on my father’s side of the family like that, so I do not know what’s up. My own father, Ed Hood, didn’t even give me an update. So I’m just stuck with this information and forced to deal with it. Just like that. Even without a mention in my uncle’s obituary, I am at peace with myself. I did my part. I went into this act with good intentions. Nothing more. I am so at peace about whatever happened in the past because I realize that my reward is not here on Earth. Psalm 51 gives me great understanding in this situation. I am reminded of this chapter when my happiness vault feels depleted. These verses give me the strength and will to carry on.

I am accused of taking a life. In return, I was able to give life back to another. What greater redemption is that? Thinking back on this whole journey knowing that I’ll go through all the turmoil and agony, I would not change a thing. Because telling this story takes the fight sort of speaking out of all that unknowing. The not knowing what happened or could have happened no longer has dominion or power over my life anymore. It will not consume me any longer. I can exhale. A wise man once said that it is better to give than receive. I believe that because the joy that I felt in my heart all those years back still cannot be taken by even the greatest of backstabbers or thieves. That in this infinitesimal way of paying it forward, some people will see most prisoners aren’t bad people. Just people who have made bad decisions who need to be thought of and cared about NO MATTER WHAT. Because one day … you may need a kidney.