As soon as the new guy arrives, he gets the bed and I’m on the stool with my back to the wall, a lightening rod up my tail.
The warden’s jammed that book in my face again – the one about Mesopotamia, “land between rivers” – the only one in the whole damn library. And on account of my broken shoulder, my hand’s stuck in the air so it looks like I’m throwing the new guy a friendly wave, or waiting for an eventual high-five. As if I care. I don’t even get a chance to complain before it’s lights on.
There’s some interest though. There was bound to be. After all, there are two of us now. Must be some kind of damn precedent.
“Look!” a little boy says to man in cream track pants. The man’s face is screwed up over the back of a camera. “They have to share a bed!”
“One of them probably sleeps on the floor,” the man says without looking up. “Or they take turns or something.”
“Dummies are dumb.”
“Your mother’s broken this again, hasn’t she?”
“I don’t ever want to go to jail,” says the little boy.
“Be good and you won’t have to,” the man replies. “ Did she break it? Say ‘hi!’” Then he takes a few shots with the flash, even though he’s not supposed to.
I know why I got stuck with him: the warden wants to see me bend. I bet he’s marked me down for ten weeks on the trolley; strapped up to a tube in the infirmary with no blanket, no john, no nothing, and he’s showing me my replacement to jangle my nerves. Someone once said that if you want to really break a man, you don’t sock him with a stone: you might take him down, but pretty soon he’ll find his legs again. If really want to keep his cheek to the cement, you have to turn his mind, scrape him a thousand, ten thousand times with a feather until he’s scratching his eyes out: you have to steal his bed, corner him, give him cause to doubt. I look at this new guy, with his beer bottle skin and marble eyes, and I know that’s what the warden wants. He wants me to bend.
Why the new guy wasn’t dumped in Geoff’s cell? Easy. Although he’s quiet and all, Geoff never folds. The warden thinks he’s got Geoff’s number, but he’s a hard one that Geoff; he never gives an inch. Even now, as he’s propped up against the mirror, shaving his neck, he’s not giving anything away. Geoff the inscrutable.
Another man with a kid. They have the same hunch, the same soggy bread roll ears. The kid reaches through the bars and tries to monkey with the edge of the bed. Almost makes it too before the man pulls him back by the collar.
“Don’t touch! Why don’t you listen?”
“This place is stupid. When’s the boat leave?”
“Now, you’ve got dust all over yourself. Do you want an ice cream or not?”
They leave, but not before the little grime ball can flip me the finger.
Finally, the warden does the rounds and shoos the stragglers from the info screens. Then he drifts around for a spell, spraying on about this and that, telling us who’s boss, that we’re miscreants (whatever they are), and that we don’t contribute to goddamn anything. “Y’all better pick up your game,” he drawls. “Heads will roll.” Since there’s not much of a game to pick up, what, with us being penned up day and night, I can’t guess what he’s referring to. But he’s always telling us that heads will roll, so we keep quiet. Then he sweeps the floors to talk back radio and it’s lights off.
From the roof a grey light trickles into the block. It flows around the bars, up and down the walkways and paints the whole cell with a glowing wash. I take stock of everything: the rotten apple walls, the slime that treacles down from the pipes; I spend an hour or two tracing lines of mortar, and the crumbling cement where the bars meet the floor. Then I remember the new guy, so I just sit there and steam, staring at his woollen hair and fancy hands. I wait. I know he’s ignoring me, but pretty soon I can’t stand it.
“I know what you’re up to,” I say through closed teeth. “Fresh in the can. Steal a man’s grave. And his blanket. You hear that, Geoff? Ha! A man’s blanket. But they’re not sending me to the trolley again. Hey! You hear me?”
The new guy’s profile is sponged onto the wall. He’s not biting.
“You’d better stay in line,” I go on, not really knowing where I’m getting this stuff from, but thinking that it sounds pretty good. “Keep your toes in a row and your tongue in a trap. Me and Geoff own this block, don’t we, Geoff?”
Geoff is still shaving. I can’t see his face, but I know he agrees with me.
The new guy just stares at the ceiling. Should I throw this old book at him? Yank off his– my blanket and drag his hide to the concrete? “Heads will roll,” I mutter and notice I’m still waving at him like a sideshow twit. Then I hear a sort of sniffling sound, like someone crying, or laughing, I can never tell. It’s the new guy. He’s cracked.
“Things are different inside, ain’t they?” I say.
“Inside what?” His voice is like a drip of water.
“In the can. What? Don’t tell me you don’t know where you’re at. Geoff – you gotta hear this.”
“Inside what?” the new guy comes at me again.
“Don’t think I’ve not got you pinned. But I’m not budging, you hear?”
I have a face I set – a mean one. Enough meanness to block a drain pipe. I set it now but the new guy doesn’t buckle.
“Ah, what’s the use,” I say. “All I know is that I’m staying put. No matter what.”
And that’s pretty much that until lights on.
* * *
I know from the way the light moves through the block that it’s bright.
Bright as a stage light.
But I’ve been in the can so long, I couldn’t say what the rest of the outside’s like. For all I know, the whole place is lined with mud flats and reed banks, populated by scattered tribes and nomadic pastoralists who all think the world is flat; just like in Mesopotamia. And that sounds alright to me. I remember being happier before landing in the can; why, I’m not sure. The day I arrived, I was wearing nothing but a red bow tie and a pair of black socks. “What a find you were,” the warden said as he dragged me in by the feet, drumming my shoulder on the stairs. He told me I’d been holed up in some factory on the mainland, wherever that is, and that he’d nabbed us all for ‘loitering’; that I belonged to the good-for-nothings now. This he found mighty funny. Just who the others he’d nabbed were, I wish I could say, but it got me thinking: maybe there is someone out there waiting for me; on the outside. I can’t say because I’m not firm on anything (and I’ve had plenty of time to think about it, believe me). They could have come during visiting hours and I wouldn’t even have recognised them. The only thing I’m square on is that when you’re locked up, you’ve got to keep your mind and protect your space: the can is the can and time is time and there’s nothing that’ll turn a bunch of waiting into anything else.
* * *
Soon after lights on, the warden comes through, marching like he’s wearing thirteen jackets.
“Rise and shine,” he says as he swings the door open. His face is red and sweaty. “Another day, another dollar, eh? How you two love birds gettin’ along? Not much of a host our Fritz. Uptight he is… but who wouldn’t be after spendin’ as long in the joint as long as he has?”
Then he goes and fusses over the new guy, tugs at his hair, pats him down and makes sure the blanket – my blanket – is fixed and proper. He spends an awful long time at it. The new guy is loving every second: a day in and already in cahoots. But what can I do? I’m not about to shine up to the brass even if it means keeping my space – that wouldn’t be right, not with Geoff looking on. And knocking him sideways would probably just leave me with two busted shoulders. No. I just want my bed back. All this sitting isn’t doing my buttocks any favours.
“You got it good, Fritz,” the warden says with his back to me. “Raz here is great company, you’ll see. A real treat. First class. Not like my Dolly – a real wart on a man’s toe, she is. Do yourself a favour and stay away from the lot of ‘em. Work all day to put food in the cooler… then, if they’re not getting their mothers looked at by some Jewish quack, they’re off tickling elbows with their ‘girlfriends’.”
He rips the book out of my hands and tosses it on the desk.
“What are we gonna do with you, Fritz?” he says and I half-expect him to evict me right there and then. He drags me from the chair to the corner of the room, where he pulls down my jumpsuit and slams me on the john. “That’s better. Go on – don’t be shy. Squeeze one out.” Through the bars I can see Geoff staring at me through the corner of his eye. Even he looks shocked.
“Sorry – out of toilet rolls,” the warden says and waddles off, chuckling to himself.
All day, despite the gawking (yes, I’m on the damn john, never seen one before?) I can’t stop thinking of the new guy, or Raz, as he calls himself, and how I’ve been played. What a card! Lazing about in bed – my bed – lapping it all up, while the warden fawns over him like he’s the king of Babylon. It’s all “Raz this” and “Raz that” and “Raz comes from high society”, as if that’s meant to impress.
Tonight after lights out I don’t waste any time.
“So, ‘Raz’… you and the warden – pretty tight, eh? You and the man – you’re as tight as two flies on a corn chip. But take it from me, you won’t get away with it.”
“Get away with what?”
“I think you know what, Razzy, ol’ Razzaaroo. You might have the warden chirping like a bird, but I’m no blunt knife.”
“I… I don’t understand.”
“So you keep sayin’. You two want me out. Nice little game.”
“I don’t even know where I am. This has to be a mistake. I’m not supposed to be here.”
“Sure, none of us are supposed to be here,” I say. “We’re all innocent.”
“But I didn’t do anything!”
“Whatever you say.”
“I shouldn’t be in this place.”
“In my bed you mean?”
“I don’t care about your damn bed!” Raz yells and, I have to say, it goes a long way to get me rattled. He had me going with the quiet man there for a second. “I don’t care about you, or your blanket, or this place, wherever it is. I just want to leave. Can’t you understand?”
“And go where?” I say, trying to keep my act in one piece. “You’re in the can now and your ass belongs to the warden. Just like mine.”
Now he starts crying. I know he’s crying because there’s a stillness that’s not there when someone’s laughing. I got him. He’s weak. He’s nothing. But then I look at my hand: it’s still waving, still waiting for that high-five… And it’s weird, but something cracks inside me and I don’t want him to cry anymore.
“OK,” I say real quiet now. “If you’ve got somewhere to go, tell me where it is.”
“I don’t know. It’s far away. It’s bright.”
“The outside,” I hear myself saying. Part of my insides wants him to go on, to tell me everything about the outside, but the hard part in me says no – that he’s just working me.
“It’s warm,” Raz goes on. “Happy. People visit us, and not just in the daytime, but at night too, and we smile at them and they smile back. We had new clothes, sometimes every day. And there’s noise. Always noise. Oh, I never thought I’d miss the crashing and beeping, the flashes, the lights in the people’s eyes as they stared at us. They said we were royalty.”
“Royalty! That’s grand,” I say and snort. I look down at my own tattered jumpsuit and wonder if I’ve ever worn anything different.
“It wasn’t just me. There were more of us. Tall and strong. They were real. Know what I mean? I knew as soon as I saw him that he’d come for me. ‘That’ll do,’ he kept saying. ‘That’ll do nicely.’ He said it over and over again. And then he grabbed me with his balloon hands, tore at my hair and face, bent my arms back until I couldn’t move and then the next thing I knew I was looking at a corridor of concrete and bars, a grey light somewhere, and this cell. And you.”
It’s a good story, I have to admit; with details even I couldn’t make up about the outside. I sure hope Geoff heard it too. He’d call bullshit if he heard it.
“And you remember it all? The outside I mean.”
“Yes, don’t you?”
“Lights and noise and royalty,” I say. “Too good to be true.”
“You’ve been here all the time, haven’t you?”
“Course I haven’t! I’m serving my time, that’s all.”
“I’ve been watching you… Your eyes are tired and your skin’s chalk. You’ve been in here a long time … I bet you’ve never even seen outside.”
“Sure I have,” I say. “We’ve all seen it – me, the other inmates, Geoff.”
Raz thinks about this a long time, then says, “What’d you do then?”
“What?” But buying time doesn’t help. The harder I squeeze the more it smudges my memories.
“Before you came here. Where were you?”
“Well, it’s like the info screens say – we’re crims, worst of the worst. Killers. Bank robbers. Sent over in 1934 from the mainland in a boat that never came back. Bumpy Johnson, Kelly, and Karpis, who was even did a longer stretch than Geoff.”
This weird look comes over Raz’s face, like he’s trying to figure something out and then he laughs, like he’s got the hiccups.
“You’re crazy,” I say to him.
And that’s that. While Raz stares at the ceiling I’m sitting on the john. I don’t know if I’m angry or not. Confused maybe. It’s hard to tell.
* * *
The moment it’s lights on, I know it’s too early.
Something about the way the light moves: it’s not filling up the right places. A few doors slam, the keys jingle and the warden’s sliding about and crashing into cell doors. The info screens stay black. “When it’s fine and sunny, with a pocket full of money…”, he sings and burps the rest out. The bulk of his shadow pulls up in front of our cell and he spits a few times onto the floor. He’s got a bottle in his hands and he’s wheezing like a rusty pipe.
“Well, just look at you two,” he says, his forehead wedged between the bars. “What a pretty pair. What’s the matter, Fritz? Been slapped with a dead octopus? Wanna know what I do when a bitch gives me the cold shoulder? I don’t stew in my pot and let it be. No! I twist her ear. Dolly knows what an ear twister I am – if she don’t she’s done learned now. What’d she think? Stays out all night on the cork with some damn doctor fella. I ain’t no fool. I tell her, her mother ain’t sick at all. Knew it all along. ”
He stumbles through the cell door and sits himself on the bed, right on Raz’s feet. He’s not wearing his uniform and in the coarse light I can see the rust on his skin. He’s got welts and scars and black hairs that worm all the way up his arms. The creases in his pants cut a crinkled wreck up to his breasts as he leans over and grabs Raz on the chin.
“Maybe I should twist your ear too, eh? What do you think, Fritz? That’s right. Fritz don’t mind. He knows who’s boss. Oh, you should have seen them up on that podium with their big eyes and lordly poses. Perfect, I thought to myself – a new Dolly to liven the place up. But they’re all the same, you know, Fritz – all ten for a penny.” Then the warden takes a swig of his bottle and slaps Raz on the cheek. Hard. He does it again. Then with the back of his hand. “Ten for a penny. Never had a good ear twisting in your life, I bet.”
The warden grabs the blanket – my blanket – and rips it straight off Raz. He tosses it at me in a ball. It hits my bad shoulder and falls into my lap. I should be at least a little happy to have what’s mine again, but you know the funny thing? I don’t even look at it. I can’t. Because all I can stare at is Raz’s naked body: the pointed toes, the gleaming arms, and his legs, which curve into his buttocks and out again like a caramel wave. The warden’s hand follows my gaze. It crabs between Raz’s thighs, over his stomach, slowly, then circles the hips. Without so much as a twitch or blink, his hand rests on Raz’s chest where, packaged like two peaches on a tray, are a pair of breasts.
I don’t even look away when the warden bends down and slobbers over them. The faster his tongue carousels around those two mounds, the more he bends his back and points his hairy elbows, the madder I get. Am I shaking? Sure I’m shaking. All I want to do is leap up and grab the warden by his throat; twist him on his jelly ear, but I can’t. The whole damn thing has frozen me; put me on the rack. Raz doesn’t budge either, but I can tell what he’s thinking. He’s no fan of the warden. I can tell that now.
The warden drains the bottle with a gargle and heaves himself up and out of the cell. Then with a gravelly cry, he bowls the bottle across the corridor. The echo stings me out of my shock. Glass smashes and splinters across Geoff’s face. Geoff doesn’t flinch. He just stands there looking mean, itching for an excuse.
“What’d you say?” the warden splutters as he zig-zags over to Geoff. He’s spitting some real trash now; arms wound up like towels, tossing shadows over the back of Geoff’s cell; but Geoff just takes it like a silhouette hose down and, after a stare off that’d put the fear in any screw, the warden backs down and clears off.
Raz starts with the crying again and this time I don’t say anything. How can I? The sobs shuffle between “I shouldn’t be here, I shouldn’t be here”. I shouldn’t care. I shouldn’t give a cod’s worth of damn. Yet the thing is, I agree: he— she shouldn’t be here, and not because of some mustardy bed or blanket. They’ve bent me alright. Raz doesn’t belong in cellblock B, or in the infirmary or anywhere in this concrete whirlpool. She belongs on the outside. Where it’s bright.
Some words fall into my head.
“It’s alright,” I say.
Lights on arrives in an instant, but it’s not the warden flicking on the info screens and sweeping the floor, but a small woman with bunched hair and tennis ball elbows. She sweeps right past us, past me on the john with the blanket over my knees, past Raz, who’s lying stiff in her birthday suit. No pep talk this time. Geoff gets his cell cleaned and he’s finally off shaving duty and back in bed. What, with all that razor action and the shattered glass, I bet he never wants to see the sharp end of anything ever again.
The visitors arrive, but it’s obvious they’re not here for me. Two boys with reversed caps and a video camera record our cell.
“Get a load of those high beamers,” the fat one says, and sniggers behind black nail polish.
“What are you waiting for?” the other one joins in.
“Nothin’. What’s it to you?” is all I can think of.
“Hey, call it ‘Porncatraz’.”
All day there’s a crowd milling around our cell. They point at Raz and giggle; young boys, girls in uniform, even men pushing strollers. She’s a trooper all right, our Raz. Doesn’t even blink. A real pro. But I can’t help but feel bad for her. I can tell by her face that these people aren’t the same ones who came to see her on the outside. There’s no royalty in here. I stop counting how many times a flash goes off until the lady warden comes in and covers up Raz with a mottled towel.
“Fritz?” Raz’s whisper taps me back into life. “You awake?”
“I just wanted to say that I’m sorry.”
“What for then?”
“You know, for taking your bed. I didn’t want to.”
“It’s OK”, I say. I debate back and forth if I should also say sorry for being hard on her and all, but I think she knows. We sit in silence. I’m trying to think of something smart to tell her to make her realise that I’m not all hard – that I’m not just some jailbird.
“Fritz?” she says.
“What are you going to do once you get out?”
I reflect on it a while, try to remember again what the outside means and if it’s more than the blur of light and dark of my memories; if it’s really like Raz said and full of lights and noise and new clothes and people laughing; a place where there’s no warden to tell you where to sit and sleep and what to read.
“You know,” I say, “I used to think Mesopotamia was the place for me. Simple life, lots of light and plenty of people to talk to. But, I was thinking… I just might find myself a quiet spot, not too small, with a bit of space and a window. Who knows? Maybe I’ll swing by that joint you were telling me about, find me some of those fancy cats, with the clothes. They’d show me around, wouldn’t they? If I say I know you and all.”
Raz laughs now and it’s the sweetest sound I ever heard. “Sure they will,” she says and I can’t help but laugh too, as if I’m discovering it for the first time. A blade of grey radiance slices the cell block in two and, although I can’t be certain, I think I even see Geoff wink from across the corridor. Sure is a sly dog that Geoff.