I sit and stare at the gray block. A few white chips show where the paint has been scraped off. I imagine looking into the expanse of the night through a telescope, the chips resembling the specks of starlight in black sky. The door of the cell opens and light explodes into my room-light, and another object appears, a red dwarf smelling like diesel fuel.
“I have some company for you, Jack,” Virge says, as she escorts the new inmate into my cell, my tight little universe.
I stand and eyeball this character. He’s rather short, ornery looking, with clipped blond hair. The orange jumpsuit is ill fitting, looks like it belonged to his father, and he smells of diesel fuel. I’m reluctant, but, if this is to be my cellmate for the next several weeks, I might as well try and be pleasant.
“Jack,” I say, extending a handshake.
He stares at me with his blue eyes but doesn’t shake my hand.
“Dean Goudge,” he says. “These fucking assholes arrested me where I work. I told them I’m working on an engine, which I hate doing, and I’ve got diesel fuel all over me. I asked them if I could clean up before they dragged me down here. But they wouldn’t even let me wash my fucking hands. They just cuffed me and dragged me out of work, right in front of everybody.” He begins to pace the cell.
I watch him walk back and forth for a few minutes, steaming, swearing under his breath.
“Fucking bitch, I’m gonna kill her as soon as I get out of here.”
“Why are you here?” I say.
“The fucking bitch is the reason I’m in here. She says I beat her up, kicked her in the back. I never touched her. She lied to the deputies when they came out.”
I’m wondering why they would arrest him if they didn’t see evidence she had been injured, a bruise, a cut, blood. “I think it’ll all be straightened out when…” I start to say when Virge appears at the door and knocks on it.
“Door’s open, c’mon in,” I say.
“Very funny.” She unlocks the door and stands in the doorway. “That’s your bedding,” she says, pointing to a slim mattress and raggedy pillow bundled up on the floor behind her. “Get it and follow me down the hall.”
Goudge and I pick up our bedding in the hallway and walk down the hall to the end where Virge opens the door to our cell. It’s a square room, perhaps twenty by twenty, in which two of the walls are bars and the other two are thick cement; greasy, unpainted, peeling. In the center of the room a metal picnic table is bolted to the floor. The bunks, six of them, line the perimeter of the walls. The three along the bars instead of the concrete walls are prime as you can stuff some of your junk between the bars. The rest of us store our things in a plastic tote that has a lid and you slide it under your bunk.
In the corner is an open toilet, with a makeshift privacy curtain made from an old sheet that is full of holes. At least it provides a modicum of privacy as you sit on the seat. Above the toilet is a steel sink. Next to the toilet is a metal shower stall, which has a plastic shower curtain, so dirty and greasy I would be afraid to touch it. Next to a formidable steel door with a little window near the top is a telephone on the wall. It looks like an old black pay phone out of the fifties, with the receiver hanging on the side and a dialer on the front. These are the built-in appliances in our suite. There is nothing else in the room. I make a mental note to find out if the phone actually works.
The bedding consists of a mat about four inches thick with a little bit of cotton stuffing placed on the steel frame of the bunk. The jail supplies a sheet, a scant wool blanket, and a thin reedy pillow with a pillow case. The room is damp and the bunk is hard. There is no comfort; no sense of place or privacy, no space of your own. You aren’t at home, you are incarcerated.
With the addition of Goudge and me, the cell is full. Labonte, a thin, older, balding man in the corner bunk is sick and gagging. One of the other jailbirds says he’s been sick since lunch, which he was unable to eat because of the gagging. I’m not too keen being locked up in the same cell with him, but you don’t get to reserve rooms in this Hilton. You get what they give you and at least I’m not sleeping on the floor, which is even harder and colder than my bunk.
LaBonte, besides his physical problems, is a bit mental. He is here because he got pissed off at a neighbor and poured something in the engine block of his neighbor’s lawn tractor that caused the engine to seize up. I have no idea if they are going to prosecute this sick old buzzard or not.
At promptly four o’clock dinner is served. It consists of a lukewarm pot pie that is crushed and most of it is stuck to the bottom of an ancient melamine plate. There is also a bologna and cheese sandwich with mustard. The bologna has no taste. Someone says it’s turkey bologna. It must have come from a plastic turkey, uh… forget that, plastic would taste better than this sticky piece of vinyl they call bologna. There are a few pieces of lettuce with some watery French dressing on it and three chocolate chip cookies. You get to flush your dinner down with a glass of room temperature Lafite Rothschild vintage 1957 red Kool Aid.
LaBonte begins some very serious gagging at the table and is hacking and spitting all over his plate of food. It’s impossible for him to swallow any of the stuff, and personally, minus gagging, I am having the same trouble, can’t force myself to eat this stuff, and don’t.
About seven p.m. one of the guards and a trustee comes by and they take orders for items available from the jail commissary. I order a couple of bags of Tostitos, three Hershey bars, a toothbrush, toothpaste and a bag of instant coffee. We have no way of heating any water for it, so you make it at a tepid temperature from the hot water faucet above the toilet. You also have to order a plastic glass to make it in, a glass is not supplied; you pay for it. And it’s made of plastic; you’re not allowed anything metal in the cell.
“Does that phone on the wall work?” I ask the guard.
“It does if you buy a phone card. You get ten minutes for five bucks,” he says.
“I had a phone card in my wallet when I checked in. Virge put my wallet with my watch and ring. Could you get the card for me?”
“It won’t work. You have to use one of ours.”
I give him a wry look. “That doesn’t seem right.”
He just shrugs. “That’s just how it is.”
This irritates me, the arrogance; the lack of fairness in an institution that has put me here because they didn’t think I was treating the rest of society fairly. But I’m a short-timer; all I want is to get out. I don’t argue with the guard, who seems pleasant, just a man with a job.
“Give me five of them.”
He looks at me a little incredulous, but hands me the phone cards along with my snacks and coffee and I put them in my tote and slide it under my bunk. I think about making a call to Sarah, but decide I’ll wait until tomorrow. I want to think on things, what I want to say to her about our future. As much as I’ve studied the cosmology of the universe, the future and the past, how everything came to be and where it might be going, seldom have I ever concerned myself much with my own future, or past. I am different now, since Sarah. She has made a difference in me. I believe that’s what love is: when you meet someone who creates change in you, is able to alter what you believed unalterable, unchangeable. When you meet someone who can bring about necessary change, and not by force, just by their presence, being with you, then you have found love.
After dinner I sit on my bunk, which is right in front of the toilet and the stinkiest bunk in the cell, for the obvious reason. Two guards open the door and enter the cell. LaBonte has been bonded out by his daughter, he is leaving. This leaves five of us. Regardless of any bacteria LaBonte left behind, his bunk has a much better location than mine, so I move across the cell.
I sit on my new and improved bunk among my cellmates, there is no conversation. We all look out into the middle of the cell, observing one another from the corner of our eyes.
I break the silence. “Jack Joseph, DUI.”
“Dean Goudge, fucked,” Goudge says, which extracts a snicker from a young dark haired man in one of the two premier bunks that are along the wall with bars, and with a better view of the TV out in the hall, and less stink.
“Fucked,” the youthful skinhead on the bunk in front of me says.
We all laugh, except for the big guy sitting on the bunk in front of Derrick’s. He doesn’t laugh, says nothing, just smiles showing his bad teeth. He is the scariest looking of my cellmates, a large bearded man who has a distant look in his eyes. Even when he looks at you it’s as if he doesn’t see you.
“What are you guys here for?” I ask to no one in particular. I look at Derrick, who seemed the most friendly, and normal.
“Embezzling from Walmart,” he says.
“How’d you manage that?”
Derrick shrugged. “It wasn’t hard. When I worked a night shift I’d just wander over to the checkout counters and open a drawer and take some. I only did it for about a month. When they questioned me I confessed.”
“That was stupid,” the young skinhead says. “Unless they caught you with your hand in the drawer they couldn’t prove it.”
“Yeah, I know. They asked me and it just popped out, I took it. I felt guilty about it.”
“That’s because you’re an honest man,” I say.
“You’re a man in the can,” the skinhead says, laughing at his attempt at humor. “You fucked yourself. You could be waiting on the outside to go to trial. Your attorney could postpone, you could be old before you ever got convicted, if they convicted you. All you had to do was keep your mouth shut. Make them prove it.”
“Fuck you, Phil. If you’re so smart why are you in here with me? And I didn’t have any money for a lawyer. If I had any money I’d have bonded out.”
High Crimes and Bad times is an excerpt from a novel titled The Pool Boy’s Beatitude. The book is yet unpublished.
This is the first installment of a 10K piece. Next week, the second one and so on for the next five weeks. Don’t miss it.
- Dj Swykert Spotlight (laemonie.wordpress.com)