I swat at a mosquito flying near my ear and feel it hit my palm. It flies off toward the window and joins the black throng of mosquitoes there. The window is nearly a third covered with a vibrating mass of hungry little bloodsuckers. Far more mosquitoes than I’ve ever seen in one place, breeding in standing puddles of brown water outside the building. It smells like a burst sewage drain, and every so often there’s a gurgling noise and bubbles surface through the thick grass. Texas is still hot in September and it might reach a hundred today. The heat serves this vile stink to us on a dripping tray of humid air.
Almost everyone has her shirt pulled up over her nose.
This is where we inmates line up to eat.
“Hey Roommate! You gonna eat your wings?” Peaches shouts past the women between us in line, her face surfacing from the folds of her shirt only long enough to get my attention.
Wings. The main course of today’s menu. Through a process called “Bastard Brokering,” large institutions, like this prison, are able to purchase lesser quality food for a cheap price. Apparently, if a factory turns out a load of chicken wings, seasoned and packaged, for say, TGI Fridays, and for whatever reason they’re rejected, they hit the bastard market. A glut of something on the market means cheap prices for the government, means wings are for lunch today.
“No,” I say to Peaches, “I want eggs so I can’t get them for you.”
Everyone knows you can’t have two proteins. But they ask anyway. You know, The Hunger. It trumps reason.
Sara, who’s my life raft, my best friend here, stays close as the line edges toward the door, closer to the window where through the mosquitoes we can see women at tables that have already gotten their trays.
“What’s in the bowl?” I ask Sara. “Can you tell?”
“Looks like cous cous,” Sara says. We do this wishful thinking joke.
“Yeah, probably has roasted garlic and fresh herbs,” I say and we laugh as the slow moving line continues its snake towards the steam tables.
In front of us, a group starts loudly comparing shoe sizes.
“I got the smallest feet,” says Renee, a very young Mexican woman, can’t be much older than eighteen, her long dark hair a mass of curling iron ringlets, her eyebrows tweezed bare and replaced with a thin lines.
“Yeah, that’s why you my lil shawty,” says JoJo, the tall black woman next to her. JoJo has been down for more than ten years and is infamous on compound. She makes a nonchalant effort to press her body close to Renee without drawing officer attention, though the closest C.O., Officer Partyhair, loves JoJo and is known for being right in the middle of inmate drama.
Partyhair is an albino black woman with just a few strands of this light-reddish hair that she combs straight up and shellacs to her head, on the very crown she pins a large fake hair-bun thing. All loopy like one of those stick-on gift bows.
“I got some big feet,” says JoJo, lifting her chin kind of up and sideways while she winks. “An d’you know what that means, Mami.”
Renee blushes, looks down at Jo-Jo’s feet, and nods as if she agrees that Jo-Jo might actually be packing.
“What was it like in the unit when that whole thing went down with Jo-Jo and Sylvia?” Sara whispers, referring to the recent fight between Jo-Jo and her ex longtime girlfriend. Apparently Sylvia found out about Renee and she sneaked into Jo-Jo’s room and shredded the afghan she’d crocheted for Jo-Jo. It was black with a huge playboy logo. This is a big deal. Crocheting a blanket for someone is serious.
Actually, crocheting is kinda serious.
Everyone does it. Probably because it’s an effective consumer of hours. I make bookmarks. Tediously crafted with a tiny hook and thread, each one takes exactly a half hour. I timed it. I need to know exactly how much time each one represents. They are tangible increments of this experience. I was sentenced to seventeen thousand, five hundred and twenty crocheted bookmarks.
“There were pieces of yarn everywhere,” I tell Sara, “It was fucking crazy, she threw it down from the second floor into the common area. Jo-Jo had to clean it all up and I think they put Sylvia in seg.”
Lesbian drama is about as interesting as it gets around here. I mean, as far as cliché prison experience goes. This is a camp. The lowest security style of the Federal Institutions. Not much fighting here, no shanks, no riots. The only way to get your ass kicked is to mess with somebody’s girlfriend.
Nothing gets a women riled up like love.
I see there are are fresh tomatoes on the cold table and make my way over while Sara is contemplating peanut butter. I am thrilled to find fresh food and start to pile them high next to my two white eggs when the unmistakable accent of Lieutenant Quejano shouting behind me halts my tomato piling.
“HEY, INMATE! YOU TUCK IN YOUR SHIRT THERE! SHOW SOME RESPECT!”
I freeze and become conscious of only the fold of my shirt between my waistband and the skin of my waist. Only once I determine beyond doubt that my shirt is intact do I dare to turn, ever so slowly, as if I am not really looking towards the vocal tirade but maybe just checking the soup over here. I don’t want any soup, but I can now see who’s scrambling to tuck her shirt in. One handed. Tray in the other. It’s Facelift.
Facelift came from New Orleans, but hasn’t said why she’s here. I suspect she is in her mid fifties, although she might have another decade in mind. Her hair is unnaturally dark, and her face is pulled so tight towards the tiny scars above her ears that her eyes have permanently narrowed, her cheekbones stick out and her lips are just two thin straight lines that strain to open when she talks. Today they are painted red. I’ve only had a couple of short conversations with her, but she managed to bring up her lack of having a facelift both times.
“My family has really great genes. Good hair, good skin, no wrinkles…” and once, even less subtly, “I’ll bet you think you’re older than me.”
Strange, the things we try so hard to hide become the most glaring, the most obvious things about us.
I attempt to return to my tomatoes, but am again interrupted.
“ARE YOU EYEBALLING MY PACKAGE, INMATE? WHY ARE YOU EYEBALLING MY PACKAGE?” Quejano shouts at another woman, a woman called Princess, who turns pink then a traumatic shade of red.
She’s short, probably five foot three, but she still has several inches on the extremely diminutive Quejano. Looking at his “package” would be both a physical and emotional stretch for any of us.
“ A cockroach…” she starts.
“WHAT?? ARE YOU CALLING ME COCKROACH?”
“No, sir. A cockroach. I saw a cockroach behind you, sir.”
“YOU DIDN’T SEE NOTHING THERE. THERE ARE NO COCKROACHES HERE. YOU GO!” His straight arm raises and his miniature hand shoos her toward the door she was only trying to get out of anyway.
Even after a year here, it’s a struggle for my brain to process this shit, I still try to make it make sense, complete the picture with logic, like those emails you can read even though there aren’t any vowels in the words. But it doesn’t work here. There is way more missing than just vowel sounds.
I realize now that I’m foolishly standing, mouth agape, looking right in Quejano’s direction. I’m no longer even trying to look at the soup having been so completely aghast at the fact that he actually just saideyeballing my package.
Just as he’s a second away from eyeballing me, I whip my body around as if I had been in motion this whole time and turn my head to find Sara, who is sitting and waving like mad for me to join her at the table.
“What the hell was that all about?” she comments more than questions. “That guy is fucking insane.”
“I know, right? It would be weird to run into him on the Outside.”
“He probably lives alone in some tiny basement apartment, never throws away his newspapers and puts together model warplanes when he’s off.”
“Yeah, I bet he looks at clown porn,” I add. “And jerks off in his uniform.”
“Oh yeah, definitely that,” Sara says, “he definitely does that…and we’re beside ourselves laughing as four women slide into the table next to us and hold up their hands, palms out to pray.
“Oh, Lord Jesus, Master Lord Jesus,” one begins.
Sara and I look at each other with artificially straightened up faces that threaten to crack up into total hysterics. The newly saved like to pray loud, like to be seen praying. It’s the other side of the social spectrum here, the opposite of the dating scene. But not so different, there’s still the latching on, the need for completion.
“We thank you oh, Lord Jesus, Master Jesus, for this bounty…” she continues at top volume. The others nod their heads and emit moans of concilliation.
Here’s how Sara and I give thanks: By laughing instead of crying and by pretending that we are eating Al Fresco in SoHo instead of here in this revolting cafeteria.
Sara acts like she is going to flag down Partyhair to bring us a couple of macchiatos. We start howling again at the thought of even saying “macchiato” to Partyhair. She would probably think we were calling her a derogatory name and we would end up in seg.
We diligently wait until Quejano is gone before we try and leave. Just incase. We scrape our plates and stack our trays not far from where Jojo and Renee are sitting, Partyhair perched on the edge of their table whispering conspiratorially like she’d rather be an inmate. “I always thought you could do better than that Sylvia,” we overhear. So does Facelift who looks up from where she sits, alone in a far corner, spooning soup through red lips that barely open.
Me and Sara pull our shirt collars up over our noses before we push open the door to brave the mosquitos and the rest of the day.