You wet your hair in the sink, then comb it back, slick as a new trash bag. You look nice. OK, so your name is Ricky. You are twenty-three years old. People say you’re sweet. You say to them, ‘No, I’m not.’ But you are. You know you are. You can’t help it. It’s like there’s a piece of candy hidden deep inside you and everyone is trying to find the easiest way to get it out.
Your cellmate, Donald Budke, he’s like Rasputin, or Genghis Khan, maybe even Napoleon Bonaparte. No one tells Donald he’s sweet. His motives are serious, and he’s got acne scars which make him look like a criminal. He is a criminal. He’s ten years older than you, is on his fourth year of a fifteen-year sentence for manslaughter. You’re just a high-school history teacher from southern Indiana, or at least you used to be.
On the day you were arrested, the US Customs agent said, ‘What the hell are you doing, Ricky?’ like he knew you or something, like he was really disappointed. ‘Who’s the vehicle registered to, Ricky?’ You told him it was your grandmother’s. You gave him your driver’s licence, your car keys. He asked you to sit in the back of his patrol car while he searched your trunk. You watched through the windshield, waiting for him to find the five cottage-cheese containers full of oxycodone you’d hidden beneath the spare tyre. The sky was pink, like a drop of blood in a glass of water. You thought, Mexico is like an art film. You thought about the ten or so pills in the pocket of your pants, wished there was some way of keeping them so you could eat them later, in the event you were placed under arrest. You didn’t want to eat any of them right then. You were already as high as a butterfly. You fished the handful out of your jeans pocket and put two in your mouth anyway, waited for the spit to come, swallowed. The rest you chewed into a paste and spat on to the floorboard of the patrol car while the customs agent rifled through your roadside emergency kit.
The man came back and said, ‘You need to step out of the car, Ricky.’ You stood beside the highway while families in minivans drove by, the early-evening heat like needles pricking your face.
Before the customs agent put you back in the car, he said, ‘Anything else hidden on your person becomes a felony inside the jail. Is there anything else, Ricky?’ You stared at his ears, which were so big and red. They suited him, you thought.
‘No, sir,’ you said. ‘Where else would I put it?’
‘Never mind,’ he said, looking away.
You could hardly hold your eyes open.
Hours later inside the customs office, another man – not much older than you, his eyes pale as pool water – told you to relax your hand while he rolled your fingers across an ink pad, pressing the fingertips on to a little index card with your name on it. The fingerprinting station was fascinating, and you told him so. You talked to him about Henry Faulds, a squat man, you said, who wore funny hats, credited with being the first person to use fingerprints for identification. ‘He used a greasy print left on a bottle of alcohol,’ you said.
‘Well, all right then,’ the man said.
He put you in a small room by yourself, a concrete cell with puce-green walls and no windows. You lay down on a metal bench that was bolted to the floor. You drifted in and out of the thing the pills made you feel. You thought about Horatio Nelson and the final moments in the battle of Cape Saint Vincent – the fleets falling out of formation on the water, gun smoke rising towards the sails, Nelson reaching out to take the surrendering sword of San Jose. You slept, turning constantly on the hard bench, shaking the whole time from nervousness and the thought of never going home and the thought of not having any more pills to take. The lights went off, and then later came back on again. A man opened the door to say you could use the phone. You followed him into the racket of the booking office and called your nanny.
‘Good afternoon,’ Nanny said when she answered the phone. You tried to explain about the pills but she kept saying, ‘Ricky, how did this happen? Should I come get you?’ When you said you were in Texas she started to cry. That wasn’t the worst part.
‘Who’s done this to you? Should I call the police?’ she asked. There was a loud crash on the other end of the phone, something breaking.
‘What was that, Nanny?’
‘I dropped a plate of food. Where’s the car, Ricky?’
‘I’m being arrested, Nanny. I have the car. I’ll bring it back.’ And you meant it, without even realizing you wouldn’t be able to. She said she’d call the secretary at Woodrow Wilson High School to tell them you wouldn’t be at work on Monday. She told you not to worry about the dogs, she’d find someone else to walk them. This made you feel deserted, and damned. Nanny didn’t get it. ‘Can the neighbours do it?’ you asked. Nanny said she had to go, to clean up the food. ‘Nanny! Nanny!’ you said, after she hung up. The officer next to you reached for his Taser. You dropped to the floor and hid your face. ‘Jesus,’ he said, before helping you up.
After two weeks in the Webb County Jail, Judge Henry Travers of the eleventh circuit court sentenced you to one year at Lewis Prison in Woodville, Texas. ‘You’ll only serve four months,’ your public defender said afterwards.
You spent eight days in a holding cell with a car thief named Teddy from Houston, then down a long, loud hall full of men yelling and watching as the guard took you to your room. Donald was sitting on the edge of the bunk reading. The guard handed you your toiletries. The door made a shocking click-clicking noise when it closed. Donald moved his hair out of his eyes, held out his hand for you to shake.
‘You like Tom Clancy?’ Donald said, showing you the cover of his book.
Most of the cells here are two-man rooms with bunk beds, like the one you’re in. There are three dormitories with around seventy men in each and people get moved all of the time but you’ve been in the two-man cell with Donald since your intake. Everywhere you turn there are black men. They huddle in the dorms, or else move through the block like schools of shimmering fish spotted by the rare scrawl of a white face. When the white men smile, their slim mouths are filled with rotten teeth. At first there is a lot of crying and vomiting and shaking, coming off, the beautiful pain pills you’d grown, over the past year and a half, to love enormously. This is prison. Donald says he can’t find you pills in here and that anyone who can is looking for a hook-up. Sometimes the old dudes will offer something boring at the canteen, Effexor or Ambien. These do not help.
You look at yourself a lot in the mirror. You’re lanky – bony and gaunt. Your hair is too blond, the cut pathetically neat. Everyone in here seems taller than you. Even the shortest felon seems like a giant.
Donald tells you that some of the other inmates have offered him money for the chance to get at you. ‘What do you mean?’ you ask.
‘What do you call a blond with half a brain?’ he asks.
Two months in and already you are ashamed of so many things, things you had no idea a person could be ashamed of. One, for being educated, because most of the men here never made it through high school. You feel embarrassed around them, like Louis XVI must have felt after his arrest, surrounded by the working class in the Temple Prison – not condescending but humiliated.
Your cell has a toilet with a sink attached. The sink is attached to the top of the toilet where you think the tank should be. At first this made you uncomfortable about washing your hands. You’re used to it now. You have to straddle the toilet facing the tank or stand to
the side of it when you brush your teeth, or wash, or get a drink. You push a button above the faucet and the water comes.
The recreation room reminds you of the teachers’ lounge at Woodrow Wilson High. One of the dudes in there, he can hardly read the newspaper. When you first saw him, sitting with the paper open, sounding out the words to himself, you thought you’d help him. He was skipping the words he couldn’t figure out. You went over and pulled up a chair. ‘Can I have a look?’ you said. This was before you knew how things worked.
He said, ‘Get your own fucking paper.’
‘It’s nay-bourhood,’ you told him, ‘not neeg-bourhood.’
‘I got it,’ he said, sliding his chair away. ‘Now get the fuck off me you faggoty fuck.’
‘Sorry,’ you said.
Your lip was trembling. You couldn’t think of anything good to say. You got up and went to the other side of the room. You sat in one of the yellow vinyl lounge chairs next to the window pretending to read People magazine. You sit there a lot now. You try not to make eye contact with anyone you suspect might be illiterate.
You told Donald the story and he laughed. You pretended to laugh too, but also you were crying a little. You didn’t let Donald know.
Donald has long black hair. Many tattoos. His teeth aren’t perfect, but you’ve seen worse. There is something dim and monumental in his eyes – the irises grey as tombstones. He grew up in Iowa. You can hear it when he talks. He calls cola ‘pop’, and other things like that. This is not the only reason you like Donald but it has a lot to do with it. He says he’s in for manslaughter, but he won’t say anything else. You ask him what happened but instead he talks about his hair. ‘There were a few guys in here that used to fuck with me,’ he says, ‘because I wouldn’t cut my hair and because sometimes I put it up in a ponytail. They used to say to me, “What’s under the ponytail, Donald, a horse’s ass?” All I have to do now is give them the look.’
He stands up really fast, like something bad has just happened. You’re not sure what’s going on. He gets right up in front of you like he’s considering the quickest way to crack open your face. ‘That’s what I do,’ he says. ‘That’s the look I give them.’ He starts laughing. ‘Works, don’t it?’
You nod. Your pulse knocks inside your ears. ‘It does. For real.’
He says now he tells them to shut the fuck up and they shut the fuck up. You’re sure you’re not capable of this.
‘Try it,’ he says.
‘I don’t think so. I’ll just be cool. I’ll stay out of their way or else give them my dessert at dinner.’
Donald points his finger at you. ‘Shut the fuck up!’ he yells. He makes a fist, brings it up to your mouth and presses the knuckles against your lips. ‘Stop fucking talking right now!’
‘Why? What did I do wrong?’ you say into his knuckles.
‘No, Ricky. Damn it. That’s what you’re supposed to say to them. I’m not telling you to shut the fuck up. Shit, dude, you’ve got to stop being such a giant pussy.’ Donald shakes his head, like he can’t believe people like you exist. ‘I’m trying to help you.’ he says. ‘You’re going to be in here a really long time. You’ve got to at least try.’
You’ve been here two months now. ‘Yeah,’ you say, ‘two more months.’
‘You’ll be lucky if they ever let you out,’ Donald says. He picks up his book. Without Remorse it’s called, and it must be serious because Donald will sometimes talk aloud while he’s reading, usually to cuss out the bad guys who he says are always corrupt cops. He lies down on the bed holding the book open in front of his face. ‘It’s gonna suck without you here, man.’
You’ve been with him almost every hour of every day since you got here and you’re still not sure what to do when he says these things.
He lays the book down on his chest. He says, ‘Some dudes make friends in here and then get all depressed if they leave. You’re lucky I’m not like that. I’d never try to kill myself or anything.’ He picks up the book again. ‘I’m reading now, don’t talk to me.’ He stares at it, turns a page. ‘Bitch,’ he says, and then, ‘Just kidding.’
Another thing you feel ashamed for is Donald. You can’t remember ever thinking of a man in this way. You had a girlfriend for a while in college, Janice Pickett. You looked at her and you liked what you saw. She was short, breasts like half-filled water balloons, strawberry-blonde hair. On the old couch in your dorm room, spring of sophomore year, she took your virginity. She took off your clothes and sat on your lap. There was a sudden wetness on you, like maybe she’d just spilled warm soup on your penis. You made an awkward groan and came inside her. She got up and ran to the bathroom. After that you went on dates together to the movies and to sports bars. You bought flavoured condoms and laid a blanket down on the dorm-room floor, thought about important moments of the American Civil War and tried not to come as soon as she climbed on top of you. You liked her, thought about asking if she wanted to move in together. Right before graduation she showed up saying, ‘Let’s keep in touch, Ricky. Sound good?’ But it sounded awful, like she was making fun of you or something. That was two years ago. You haven’t had a woman since. The female teachers at Woodrow Wilson made you nervous when they started acting sexy, cornering you in front of the faculty microwave. You just never thought about guys. One time in college a drunk guy at a house party showed his penis to everyone in the room. It made your face hot, caused a tingling feeling in your stomach, but you didn’t want to touch it or anything. Why would you? You only thought it looked weird. It was big.
When you find out that Nanny reported the car stolen, her car, which you drove from Indiana to Mexico to the buy the pills, you aren’t angry exactly, just frustrated. Frustrated is a better word for it. Nanny forgets things. She can’t help it.
She can’t come to visit but you call her on Thursdays. At first she only asked about the car, kept telling you that someone had stolen it. ‘Can you believe someone would do that to me?’ she said. Two months in and she’s finally stopped with that. Instead she tells you she hopes you’re doing well, that she’s proud of you, and proud of your new job in Pittsburgh, where she says you’re teaching history again. She says you should go and straighten up the desks before class every day, pick up all the little bits of paper trash off the floor so that the Lord can come into a nice clean classroom before each session, inspiring the children to learn and truly love their lessons. ‘Will you do that for me, Ricky? Will you try it and see if it makes a difference?’
‘Yes,’ you say, ‘I’ll do that, for sure, what a good idea.’ Then you walk back down the hall, through all the loud and mechanical doors towards your cell, where Donald is playing rummy against himself or watching The Maury Povich Show. ‘How was it?’ he says.
‘Oh, it was whack,’ you tell him.
At 9 p.m. the lights and the television are shut off. Sometimes it takes a while for the cell block to quiet down. The other inmates are always laughing or yelling. Eventually one of the guards calls for everyone to knock it off. Donald has the bottom bunk, and he usually waits fifteen or so minutes before he asks if you’re asleep. You say, ‘No, I’m still awake,’ and then Donald asks if you want to come down there.
‘Whatever,’ you say.
You’d been in here maybe a month when Donald first said it, and now after a few weeks of it, you just climb down from your bunk and try not to look nervous. You wait for him to make a spot for you next to the wall. You lie stiff as a book against the cold concrete and wait. You both lie there for a minute without touching until he asks if you want to suck. That’s when the tingling in your stomach starts. If you want to suck you put your hand on his penis, which is already so hard that it sticks up out of his underwear, flat against his stomach under the tight elastic of his briefs. You play with it for a minute before putting your face under the covers. Sometimes he asks if you’d rather fuck, in which case you roll over and face the wall. It’s nothing, really. Just a heavy weight. A heat in your joints. A current travelling. This is what cellmates do.
About the pills. You had an abscessed tooth, right – a cavity and then a pain like a wide throb across your face that woke you up one morning before work. Your dentist – the same one Nanny had been taking you to since you were little – scolded you for letting it get that bad, prescribed ten days’ worth of antibiotics and twenty Vicodin, told you to come back in a week and a half. The first pain pill made you dizzy and tired. You slept straight through the night. The second one made you vomit. The third one lit a glorious fire in your head that eventually spread to your chest and arms and groin until it had invaded your whole body. Everything was right in the world. Nanny was a thin, white angel mixing vanilla pudding at the kitchen table. The children at school were blurs of pink and green with flesh tones in between. Instead of reading aloud from the textbook every day you wrote lectures for the first time. History books became the things they used to be on sunnier days alone in your old dorm room. The surge of those sagas opened up to you like ancient mausoleums.
The Life of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen.
The Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire.
A History of the American Privateers During Our War with England in the years 1812, ’13 and ’14. You could put your hand over your eyes and see battlefields, crowded infirmaries, the torch-lit corridors of Nubian pyramids.
After that you were making appointments at the doctor’s office all the time, complaining of back pain, neck pain, chronic headaches, a burning sensation in your kneecaps. You’d take Lortab, Vicodin, Percocet, Percodan, Tylox. It was like learning a secret language. Some of the pills were more exciting than others. You saw three different doctors, had prescriptions filled at every drugstore in town, until finally Shirley Lynn Dobbs at Dobbs’ Drugstore started asking questions, making calls.
It was maybe a week later that you saw the article about pharmaceuticals and drug laws in Newsweek – they mentioned Mexico, speedy clinics in the backs of grocery stores and novelty shops, prescriptions for anything a patient was willing to pay for in cash. You thought of nineteenth-century China, of the thriving opium trade and those covert smoking divans. It sounded like the most perfect retreat.
It was the Thanksgiving holiday. You told Nanny you were going to Indianapolis to hear a seminar on the Miami Indians of the Midwest. You emptied your savings, cashed in a couple of bonds. You had enough pills to last three days. You got in Nanny’s car and drove. And drove. And drove. The sun and the moon came and went.
The day before Thanksgiving, in Nuevo Laredo, you rented a room at the Red Roof Inn. You got lost two days in a row, ate too many cheap enchiladas, asked the wrong people the wrong questions in the wrong language until you finally decided that the back-door pharmacies were made up, were more like small invisible cities of El Dorado than the luxurious opium dens of China.
On the last night, at the Chaser Lounge, you let Kenny Voglar from Carson City, Nevada, buy you too many strawberry margaritas. Kenny wore a lime-green tank top and a diamond ring. He claimed he was once the president of the Rod Stewart fan club. He had a soft spot for GHB and Xanax. He said he knew a man who had exactly what you were looking for. You could see your reflection in the mirror behind the bar. The Christmas lights strung around the alcohol bottles made little flashes of colour across your face like so many blue and red stars blinking off and on.
The man who had exactly what you were looking for was actually a seventeen-year-old Mexican kid in short-shorts with a Madonna tattoo. Kenny talked. The Mexican kid turned up ‘Like a Prayer’ on the stereo and danced. Kenny watched. You stood by the door, pretending to read the ingredients on a package of gum. After the song was over the kid went into the bathroom, made some noise, brought out five cottage-cheese containers full of pills. He handed you one of the pills. You took it, and sat on the floor watching the Hispanic boy and Kenny Voglar snort something off the bedside table. They danced around to the music while you waited for the pill to do its stuff. After twenty minutes or so you decided you maybe liked Madonna. ‘Vogue’ seemed like an interesting song. The Hispanic kid did a special dance for it. He seemed very talented. You gave him all of your money. He gave you all of his cottage-cheese containers.
If you don’t answer Donald when he asks if you’re asleep, he says, ‘I see how it is. What? You mad at me? You got a problem, Ricky?’ But you’re never mad at him. You’re just worried. You lie in your bed and fake the loud, steady breaths of deep sleep. You feel the bed start to shake, Donald furiously taking care of himself on the bunk beneath. He’s only touched your penis once, wrapped his hand around it and squeezed for a second. After he finishes in your mouth or on your back he quickly pulls up his pants and rolls over and you climb up to your bunk.
Once, after he was finished fucking, you started to get up and he said, ‘Don’t move.’ He put his arms around you, pressed his face into your back, touched you neatly on the spine with his nose. You might have stayed like that all night except Donald woke you up later, smacking you in the head, saying, ‘Go back to your own bed, faggot.’ An inmate a couple cells down was yelling, ‘It’s my stomach. I think it’s the pancreas! I need a doctor!’
‘Shut the hell up,’ someone else yelled.
‘No shit,’ Donald called back, ‘because you don’t even know what a pancreas is!’
You met with your drug counsellor for the first time and he told you your official release date. May 14. It is now the fifth of April. He said he was proud of you, which was odd since you’d only met with him once. Still, it was nice to hear. You asked when you would have to appear before the parole board. He said, ‘This is a kind of parole hearing right now. You’ve done everything right. Good job, Ricky.’
You come back into the cell and tell Donald that things went great with the counsellor. Donald is sitting on the floor, shuffling the cards. ‘Where’s Rainbow Six?’
‘My new Clancy book, idiot. Where the fuck is it?’
‘I haven’t seen it.’
Donald holds up the deck of cards with one hand, presses them between his thumb and index finger so that the cards go flying. There’s something in his mouth. He looks up at you while the cards fly. He spits hard across the room, hitting you, perfectly, on the mouth. He says, ‘Don’t think you’re better than anyone else in here! You fucking drug addict. If you get out you’ll be back on drugs in no time. Then you’ll be dead.’
You stand with his spit running down your chin. You want to say something but the spit clings. You don’t wipe it away. Just stare at the wall with your mouth closed tight. You think about the Korean War. Think about President Harry S. Truman or picture old Douglas MacArthur standing on the grassy banks of the Nakdong River polishing his sunglasses with a handkerchief. Wait for Donald to look away and then use your shirtsleeve to wipe away the spit. You go and put your mouth under the spigot. You wonder how much tobacco it must have taken General MacArthur to fill his gigantic pipe. Think about your counsellor. Think: Good job, Ricky. Good job.
Nanny is your mother, or she might as well be. There has never been anyone else, at least not that you can remember. You remember a day years ago, before the pills, right after you moved home from college. You were in the living room with Nanny. The dogs, Ashley and Lyle, were asleep under the coffee table, their noses at Nanny’s feet. She sat her Dr Pepper down on the china saucer she used for a coaster. You loved the sound it made after each drink, when she returned the can to the saucer, the warbled ping of aluminium to china. ‘You know, honey, to me Dr Pepper tastes like vanilla extract. And you know what else? I think you have always been this way. You have always been like you are now, even as a little boy. A criminal mind, some people call it, but I think you could be a minister. Your great-grandfather was insane. He used to choke rabbits to death in the shed. He enjoyed it. You remind me of him.’ You were flattered, even though it was clearly one of her less coherent days and you weren’t entirely sure what she meant. She kept calling you Larry, who was maybe an old friend of hers. She’d go through a short list of names – her grandfather, distant cousins – before she called you by the right one. It made you proud to know you reminded her of a dangerous person. You only wished you were the sort of person who could choke a bunny. You wonder if Nanny somehow knew this was coming.
The day after Donald spat in your face the two of you sit on the floor and play spades as if none of it happened. Donald has a tattoo of a black knife surrounded by a spiral of thorns directly over his Adam’s apple. You stare at his throat, not at the tattoo, but at the thick apex of bone there. It reminds you of something. A pill. A tree. An erection.
‘One time I choked a rabbit to death,’ you tell him.
‘My lawyer fucked me over, really did a number on me,’ he says.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Just did, man. Just did.’
This isn’t good enough. You want the history. The timeline of events. You want the body count. But before you can ask him, Donald reaches into his pants and takes out an oatmeal cookie. ‘I saved it from lunch. It’s all yours.’ It’s against the rules to leave the mainline with food, and you don’t like oatmeal cookies. But you eat it anyway. Donald says, ‘Ricky, I was trying to help you. That’s why I spit on you. Every motherfucker in here is going to try and spit in your face, or worse. They don’t give a shit whether you live or die. You’re not free yet, man. You’re still an inmate. I just want you to be prepared. I just really care about you. I take care of me and mine.’
During the last few weeks you keep your hands clean. Shave every day. When you shower, you always use more soap on the parts of you Donald pays most attention to: hands, butt, hands.
Nanny sends many cards. The last one: Life is well in Pike County. Ashley is eight! Lyle has been injured! Those crazy people down the street with the camouflage golf cart! Ashley whines at your bedroom door. Lyle always thought so much of you. You didn’t forget about him, did you? He would always follow you around when you killed the flies so he could eat up the dead ones! Went to lunch at Long John Silver’s with my sister. She’s been coming over to walk the dogs. I might get tired of her soon! Been thinking of you. Been thinking of you so much. Submitted your name to the prayer chain at church.
Climb into bed. Get back up. Read the last chapter in all of Donald’s books. Write a letter to Nanny. Drink water from the sink. Wet your hair. Comb it straight back. Look at yourself in the metal of the sink and think: Not bad, Ricky.
You like the black guys but sometimes they throw pieces of food at each other during dinner. They make a mess. They ask you what you’re looking at and you offer them your fruit cup. One of them comes and takes it. ‘Thank you,’ he says. Apparently he doesn’t like the pear chunks, because he spends the rest of the time throwing them back at you every time the guard looks away. Finally Donald comes in and sits down, sees the pear chunks on the table, a piece stuck to the front of your jumpsuit. He looks over at the black dudes but they’re looking at their food, pushing it around with their spoons. ‘What the fuck?’ Donald says. Eventually someone lifts their head. Donald points at him, picks up some of the pear, throws it and hits him right on the forehead. They both stand up.
‘Fuck no,’ Donald says. ‘Sit right back down.’ When the guy doesn’t sit down, you say to Donald, ‘Don’t. Just forget about it. I don’t care about the pears,’ but Donald is walking over with his tray in his hands and breaking it over the guy’s head. One swift crack against the man’s face and the guards are dragging Donald out of the mainline. You’re just standing there, not saying a word, with fruit still stuck on your jumpsuit.
Donald’s skin is tan and tough from years of working in the sun. He was a labourer. He roofed hotels in Cleveland, worked as a garbage man in Louisville, did other things in Chicago. ‘You go where the work is,’ he always says.
He is gone for over a week. In solitary confinement. You can only wonder what is happening to him. Sometimes men will spend months in the hole. No television. No books. No one to talk to. Donald came on you the night before he hit the guy in the face with the food tray. You don’t take a bath while he’s gone. You keep the smell on you. Put your hands on your back, between your legs, up to your nose. It is the smell of something old, something unclean and sour and terribly personal. This is what it’s like with him.
Several inmates approach you in the yard. They enclose you, dark and scary as a basement. They want to know if you’re looking for anything. One of them gets right up in your face. He says, ‘You’re fair game now that your dude is gone.’ He tells you, ‘This way, buddy. Walk over here.’ But one of the senior guards, Clint maybe, or Gary, comes and stands between the two of you. He says, ‘Come on, Ricky. That’s enough. Let’s go.’ He takes you through the gymnasium, and all the way back to your cell. ‘You need to get your shit together,’ he says. He wants to know how a kid like you ended up in Woodville.
‘Drugs,’ you tell him.
He laughs at that. ‘What else,’ he says. It’s not a question.
You lie in bed the rest of the time smelling yourself and thinking about Donald: how he only sleeps on his back; how the blood pools in the sink after he brushes his teeth; how he always cleans under his fingernails with an envelope, how his semen tastes, how it sprays over you in varying arcs – the distance it goes, the sheer and warm amount of it shooting across your body.
When he finally comes back you’re in the recreation room sitting in your chair by the window, reading a magazine. You watch him walk in. He’s freshly shaven. His hair is pulled back, combed and wet. You’re not sure if you should smile. You know you pay too much attention to him in front of other people. He stands on the other side of the room talking to some of the other men from your block. He looks so clean, just back from the showers. You’re still dirty. You walk over and stand next to him. You don’t speak. It takes him a minute. ‘What’s up?’ he says, like he hardly knows you. You have to keep your hands tucked into your waistband to keep from reaching out and stroking his ponytail. Here you are, like Hephaestion standing in the court of Alexander the Great, pretending to listen to the strategies
but instead thinking of how he’s going to make you feel after the troops disperse.
When you’re both back in the cell Donald says, ‘They’ll put someone else in here as soon as you’re gone. I wonder who it will be? I hope they’re cool.’
You imagine another man in the cell. You imagine the lights going out, the room quiet for a few minutes before Donald asks this other man if he’s asleep. You wonder what Donald means by ‘cool’.
At lights out you take all of your clothes off and wait for him to ask you. After maybe half an hour has passed and he hasn’t said anything you climb down and get into his bed. For the first time, you kiss him. Maybe you shouldn’t but you want to try.
‘What the hell?’ he says, jerking back, like he doesn’t understand. ‘I’m not your fucking boyfriend.’ He grabs your head, pushes you down towards his crotch. ‘Do me a favour,’ he says.
For the rest of the week, after lights out, Donald says nothing or else he just comes up to your bunk. He says, ‘Turn over.’ He presses his fist against the small of your back and whispers in your ear. He says, ‘You like it now, don’t you? You love it. You want me to own it.’ He says, ‘You like it when it hurts?’
You tell him you like it when it hurts. You tell him you want him to own you.
You talk to Nanny on the phone. You tell her you need a way to get back to Indiana. You tell her the car was impounded, you don’t have the car, she’ll have to pick it up.
Nanny is upset. ‘Ricky, you’ve got a good job there in Pittsburgh. It’s a friendly city. I don’t know why you’re quitting. This is nonsense.’ So many times you’ve explained to Nanny. It was easier to go along at first, but now you realize the problem with that.
You tell her it’s the end of the school year and you might go back in the fall but you’re not sure yet. You say there’s been some conflict among the faculty members over trash in the classrooms. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ you say. You ask for money to buy a plane ticket. You tell her she can send it to the same address she sends the letters. She says she has to get the dog off of her lap. ‘I have an ink pen right here,’ she says. You’ve given her the address four other times, but you tell her again. She says, ‘Why on earth would I mail a cheque to someplace in Texas, Ricky? That doesn’t make any sense to me.’ You get the dreadful feeling that maybe she chooses her moments of sanity. Nanny says that Ashley is going crazy over something in the kitchen, probably a mouse behind the refrigerator. She has to get off the phone to see what the ruckus is about. ‘I can’t have her hurting herself. They’re all I’ve got, Ricky. These sweet little dogs.’ She hangs up and for a while you keep the receiver to your ear, listening to the droning static of the open line until the guard taps on the door to say your time is up.
After dinner you and Donald play cards and drink milk, sharing the same styrofoam cup, taking little sips so that there is always another drink left. You always do it this way when you have milk before bed, and there is always one last sip. Even before the lights are turned off you put your hands down the front of Donald’s underwear. You hold his penis. Donald punches you in the arm and then puts his hand in your underwear too. He tries jacking you off. You each hold the other’s penis. Donald doesn’t know what he’s doing. He gets too rough. You think he’s trying to make it hurt. You don’t say it hurts though and, eventually, it starts to feel good.
The lights go out before you’re done.
‘Stay here,’ he says.
‘Here, idiot. With me.’
‘I don’t think I can.’
‘Then do something,’ he says, smiling.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I already said.’
You get in Donald’s bed. He puts his head under the cover. Puts you in his mouth. He bites you. You’re wishing you knew how to help him. You’re wishing he knew what he was doing, that he meant it. His teeth get in the way. He’s going too fast. ‘Are you close?’ he says.
‘I think so,’ you say.
He moves around for a few minutes. He presses his thumbs into your thighs. Eventually he gives up, slides back on to the pillow and props his head on an arm. He uses his other hand on you. He stares at you while he does it. He’s never let you be this close to his face but after a minute he is finally putting his lips close to yours, easing his tongue in your mouth. He opens too wide and breathes across your teeth until you are running out over his knuckles and down on to your stomach. He’s right there in front of you and you can feel his mouth widening into a smile. Something shifts, spreads through your body like a vivid fluid crowding out your limbs.
‘You don’t want to leave.’ he says. ‘I’ve got fifteen more years of this fucking place. Think about that.’
‘Eleven,’ you say. ‘You’ve got eleven more years.’
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘Eleven. That’s what I meant.’
‘I ran over a dog.’
‘Did the dog belong to someone famous?’
‘No. Moron.’ He’s quiet. He sits up, then lies down again. ‘Do you have kids?’ he says.
‘You know I don’t.’ It’s like he’s forgotten who he’s even talking to.
‘That’s right, you don’t. They’re not what you expect. It’s not like how you imagine. You think you can look at someone else’s kids and know what it’s like.’ Donald lets down his ponytail. The hair falls forward, hiding his face. ‘When they’re yours it’s like they’re wild animals or something and you have to clean up their shit and keep them from burning the house down or running into the street
You want to get up. ‘I should sleep,’ you say.
Donald grabs you. ‘You’re a fucking moron, Ricky.’
‘No, I’m not.’
‘You’re like every other motherfucker in here.’
You’re thinking he’s going to hit you. You get up but he just sits there with his hair in his eyes. ‘Why are you like the way you are?’ you ask, but he doesn’t talk now. You reach out to touch him, but you smack him instead, without even thinking, across the face. You hit him in the head, and arms, then on the chest. You’re right up on him and both of your arms and hands are throbbing with the way it feels to touch him like this. You’re on top and he’s on the bed and you’re trying to give him what he wants. He’s yelling. He wants it to hurt. He wants it to bad. He’s covering his face and moving towards the wall and pretending. He’s doing you a favour. He’s saying you’re crazy, someone help, you’re fucking nuts. The door opens and the guard is saying, ‘Ricky, get off. Back up!’ The guard is in the room and he’s bending your arms behind you. He is pushing you out and holding your wrists against the middle of your back as he leads you into the long, loud hallway of men who are watching and whistling as you go by.
He takes you out of the cell block and into a room with pictures on the walls. There are chairs all around, like in a waiting area. Another guard drags one of the chairs towards the middle and handcuffs you to it. You’re in there alone for a long time, sitting in the chair, with a fiery and disordered ache still in your arms and face. Every so often you can hear the sound of something mechanical, an engine of some kind on the other side of the wall. There are shelves filled with magazines and thick paperbacks, and a small window, high up, with a white curtain. It is different in here, not like the rest of the prison. It is for employees, you think. That you’re handcuffed to the meagre chair seems like a joke.
Eventually you hear the door, and the guard comes, with two little cups. ‘Here,’ he says. One of the cups is full of water, and the other has a pill in the bottom, something small and yellow, and unfamiliar. ‘I can’t,’ you say. ‘I can’t take it.’
‘Yeah, you can. It’s fine.’ He sounds bored, like he’s said this before. ‘I promise. Just swallow it. It’s so you can sleep.’
Stare at the pill, and then the guard. Recall the distant rapture of pharmaceuticals. ‘People get nervous, Ricky. You’re a kid. Shit is scary. Take the pill.’
Dump the pill out of the cup into your hand and put it in your mouth. Drink the water and swallow. The guard says to stand up and come with him. He walks you out of the room, down another hall into a different cell where there’s just a cot and a toilet. This is the hole. You know it once you’re inside. The door is closed and then it’s too dark to see. You feel your way around. The guard says he’ll see you later. You find the cot and lie down and think about Nanny for a long time until, finally, you’re seized by the miraculous buoyancy of the little pill. After that, there’s not much.
There is a long corridor of solid metal doors that eventually open to the prison yard, and then to an enormous parking lot, and beyond that the grass and the interstate where the cars pass all day long like birds migrating in both directions. In the morning no one talks about what happened. They give you a bus ticket and eighty-six dollars. ‘For food,’ the man says, after he explains how long the trip will take, and the various stops, on the way back to Indiana. They give you the same clothes you were wearing when you came in. You don’t know how to feel about this. It’s like you’re supposed to walk out and pick up where you left off. You sit down on the floor and tie your shoes. You have forgotten about them. You see them on your feet and you’re shocked by the way they look. A stocky lady wearing red lipstick and big sunglasses comes out from behind the desk she’s sitting at and says, ‘Come on, Ricky. I guess I’m taking you.’ She talks into her radio. She says some numbers. You don’t know what they mean. You follow her out of the door and to a car. You’re not sure if you should open the car door yourself or wait for her to do it. She comes up behind you and puts her hand on your back and says, ‘You can sit up front – if you want.’
You get in the front seat of the car. The interior is hot. It feels good against the backs of your legs. Go with her, down the service road, on to the interstate. It’s a few miles to the bus stop where there’s a sign in the window that reads, ‘Give Us Your Hungry’, which seems very silly to you. This is not prison. This is a bus stop. Here the shoe meets the grass. After she drives off, you stand there for a long time. If you wanted you could stare down at the gravel parking lot all day. This is where people get up from their seats any time they want and maybe even walk to the North Pole if they think there’s something there worth walking to. It smells like dirt, and the bitter exhaust of so many buses. You’re like John Smith, you think, or William Clark, or Amerigo Vespucci, an eager frontiersman plodding off towards the darkest places.
Photograph © Danny Lyons / Magnum Photos