It’s hard not to feel bad for the prisoners, but I guess that’s because I don’t know what they did to get in here. When they turn doleful eyes to you or say they miss their family, you don’t think about what the prisoners broke in order to end up in here. It’s really a lot easier to imagine a hypothetical dining room table with an empty seat in some faraway place than it is to imagine some heinous crime in progress.
I asked my sister if she felt sorry for them, and she said, don’t you watch the news? I don’t know what that means. I guess she means I should be looking at the horrific headlines and thinking about justice and how we keep those headlines from happening again. But that’s not really true, is it? Most of these guys committed crimes I’ll bet you’ve never heard of.
My sister and I were recruited out of high school. I still remember the day that the recruiters came into my class. They hadn’t said they were recruiters, then. They’d said they were there with the Department of Health and they were going to give us all fluoride to gargle like they did every year. Then they set down the tiny paper cups on each desk and waited. Ms. Tepke had tipped hers back first, then frowned at the front row of students until they did the same. I was all set to do the same.
But the cups were empty. I had glanced up to see if mine was the only one, but no, they were all just little hollow paper cups with crimped edges, looking like so many tiny cupcake wrappers. When Ms. Tepke saw that mine was untouched, she asked is your mouth too clean for fluoride, Gillian? When I’d told her there was nothing in it, everyone in class had stared at me. I was sort of used to that.
Ms. Tepke had told me I could at least come up with a fake allergy if I didn’t want to drink the mouthwash. I offered to drink it as soon as they filled it. They never did.
There is this one prisoner in the south wing who doesn’t ever seem to eat. He’s a big guy, and the first time I saw him, I thought about what it would be like to try to hug his giant barrel chest. It’s not that his face looks particularly friendly — he’s all jaw and frustration — but sometimes, I get an almost unbearable urge to touch someone to see what they feel like. Like, I’ll be sitting next to a stranger on the bus and she’ll have pouchy eyes and very violet lips and I think about putting my finger on the skin under her eyes to see what it feels like. Of course I don’t. But I think about it. Sometimes I worry that I’ll be sleepy and distracted and I’ll actually do it before I think to stop myself.
But I won’t forget myself with the prisoner in the south wing.
I don’t really understand his sentence. Every morning we are to bring him a tray of food. He pushes heavily to his feet, chains jingling incongruously, his stride dutiful as he approaches, as if he thinks that today will be the day he gets his pudding and fruit cup. But every morning we’ve put it just out of reach. His finger tips almost brush the edge of the beige plastic tray as his hand sweeps hopefully out. Sometimes they can actually touch it, and when he reaches for the tray, the act of touching it pushes it completely out of his reach.
That’s when we get the doleful eyes. He asks for just the fruit cup. He says he has never seen anything as nice as that pudding. He touches his ribs and says, it hurts just here. He asks, have you ever been hungry?
Of course everyone’s been hungry. The question is really too obvious, too clearly a plea for sympathy. I feel worse for the ones who talk about their kids. That’s still pretty clearly an attempt at manipulation, but you have to remind yourself it is when sympathy begins to sting.
Still, I wonder what the burly man did.
After I refused to drink the empty cup of fluoride, I was taken from the classroom and made to sit by myself in the nurse’s office. The office was a depressing place. The only color in the room was a poster describing the school’s policy about sexual harassment. Our all-girls’ school was a bit psychotic about it; no male staff member or visitor was allowed to touch a student, even to shake hands. I stared at the poster until the words didn’t make sense and wondered if I was really in trouble for not pretending to drink fluoride. After awhile, Ms. Tepke and a man came in. The man placed three smooth rocks on the table in front of me. He asked me to hide one of them somewhere in the room, somewhere he could never get it.
But he didn’t close his eyes for me to hide it. I think he meant for me to believe that he did, but I could see he was still looking with one eye. When I thought about it, I didn’t think he’d ever been actually focused on me with the other eye at all — I think maybe he was blind in it.
Under his one-eyed gaze, I picked the stone in the middle — it was flat and smooth, like a piece of gum squashed under your tongue — and put the stone in my mouth.
The man sounded contemptuous when he told me that he knew where I put the rock and that he could get to it easily and was that all the better I could do?
I pointed to the poster on the wall.
I think of the south wing of the prison as the bloody wing. The prisoners here all tend to have gruesome sentences. One of them has a split tongue that never heals. Another lives in a cell constantly searing with heat. Another one balances a rigid, storm-colored weight on his blistered back.
One of the prisoners cries all the time. In his defense, one of the wardens cuts his liver out every afternoon and he has to spend all night re-growing it. I think about him every time I get a bruise or paper cut. It should make me feel less sorry for myself. Sometimes it works.
When I first came to the prison and saw the bloody wing, I asked if we had a medical staff, and they laughed at me. It took me a while to realize that no one ever died here. Sometimes I think that’s part of their sentences.
I spent so much time in the nurse’s office that I missed Geometry, and the day that the fake Department of Health people came, we had a test in Geometry.
The one-eyed man left the office with the remaining rocks that I hadn’t hidden and returned with my blank Geometry test. It had a big F on the top of it. I do not get Fs. The one-eyed man told me I hadn’t attended Geometry, so I had failed, and what did I think about that? I took a moment to remove the rock from my mouth and I confessed that I thought it sucked. He said, do you think they should give you another grade? I didn’t see how that could do that unless they made one up, and I told him so. Maybe I should get another chance at it, but it didn’t change the fact that this geometry test was blank and clearly worth a zero. The one-eyed man said that was very fair of me.
I resisted reaching to touch his blind eye. Even if it didn’t see, it could probably still feel, and who wanted someone to touch their eyeball? I told the man it wasn’t about being fair. It was just facts.
That was when he told me he had a job offer for me.
The most horrible sentence that I’ve seen at the prison belongs to prisoner S. His room is the largest in the prison; the entire east wing. It’s one long, echoing room, all cinder blocks and concrete floor and, in the middle of it, a boy sitting cross-legged, paint spattered and smeared across his grey jumpsuit. Prisoner S.
Every day we bring him a pan of paint and a roller and we undo his chains and he thanks us in his polite way. Then he begins to paint the walls with the new color. Orange over yellow over blue over white. If he can paint the entire room with his daily ration of paint before we come to chain him again, he has served his sentence and he can go.
He never complains, Prisoner S. Every day he picks up the roller as if it is the first day he’s seen it. With his foot, he pushes the paint tray beside him as he progresses along the wall. The cinder blocks stretch out in front of him. He is like the prison clock, the edge of the paint marking the hours of the day.
Of course he can’t paint the whole room himself. The walls are rainbow striped studies of impossibility.
I’m not certain why I feel the worst about Prisoner S. Certainly his sentence isn’t the most physically painful — he, at least, gets to keep his liver. And he’s never told me about his kids or his home. He’s never cast a single doleful look in my direction. All Prisoner S. does is thank us for his paint, weigh the roller in his hand like he needs to test its balance, and get to work.
And I think that’s what makes it the worst. It’s like he thinks he deserves it.
Maybe he does.
I asked my sister if she knew what Prisoner S. had done to get his sentence, but she didn’t know. She said she was sure it was fair.
Of course I agreed with her. If I didn’t, I couldn’t work at the prison. The fact that our work was fair payment for foul deeds performed was what made us the good guys. And I was okay with that, most days. It was only the days when I had to walk across the long, long room to Prisoner S. and unchain him that I faltered a bit.
One day, when I went to uncuff him, I noticed his palms. His hands were lined; older than the rest of him, somehow. The palms of them looked leathery.
Without thinking, I reached to touch them.
Prisoner S. didn’t move as I ran a finger along his split life line. His skin was every bit as rough and cool as I’d expected. I swallowed quickly and turned to get the paint.
He said, thank you, ma’am, and picked up the paint roller. I didn’t need to stay behind to know that he was weighing it in his hand, looking at it with consideration, as he did, every day.
I wasn’t sure that fair was good enough. Just because you deserved something didn’t mean you had to get it in full measure, did it?
I had been working at the prison for ten years when I came quietly into Prisoner S.’s cell with my breath coming out in fast puffs. He looked no different; neither did I. The wardens only ever seemed to age when we left the prison, and our work weeks were long.
I unchained him and I pushed the paint towards him. Today it was the color of the sky without rain.
Prisoner S. looked at the paint tray and the two rollers laying beside it. There was confusion in his expression.
“One for me,” I said.
He told me that if they caught me helping, I would be punished.
I was sure the punishment would be fair.
Author’s note: Greek and Norse and Roman men behaving badly.
image courtesy: JDhyre