Prisoner

My crimes were mostly clerical, and I readily admitted to them with a shrug. No broke weeping widows showed up at my sentencing hearing. No mothers with suckling babies, either, screaming, “You stole my life’s savings!” No press. No one showed up but my court-appointed attorney, a nervous young man who’d already developed a facial tic. And there was the judge, whose boredom was only matched by his inability to maintain eye contact with anyone in the courtroom.

Counting me, three people were present. The two cops behind me made five.

When the deputy assistant U.S. district attorney who’d been assigned my case finally arrived, ten minutes late, that made six people. He announced himself by tripping, dropping his briefcase and accidentally kicking it across the courtroom. “Whoopsie-doodle!” he trilled, and chased it down.

No one was there to weep for me. My parents had retired to deepest Boca in deepest Florida, surrounded by festering pools of wealth, chipped mahjong tiles and sun-faded bocce balls. They’d lost interest in me a decade or so before my arrest. I’m not certain if they know what became of me. I’m certain they don’t care.

Despite the lack of interest in my case, even by myself, I was sentenced by the socially awkward judge to a couple of decades of not-so-hard labor. Somewhere in his sentencing speech, he referred to me as a highly functioning sociopath who was best kept away from all manner of decent society.

Let’s get this straight.

One: I am not a sociopath. My therapist says that I am, in fact… indeed, the only non-sociopath she’s discovered here in prison. She refers to sociopaths as “people who are missing something in the middle. Like a doughnut. If you are a doughnut,” she continued, “then you are a doughnut with a bubbling, microwaved strawberry filling.” Which is, perhaps, the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me, or about me. And I, frankly, don’t care that she’s paid by the Bureau of Prisons to sit across a desk from me and listen to me pour my withered heart out for forty minutes a week on Wednesdays starting at 9:20 a.m.

Two: “Decent society,” which I am assuming was the judge’s reference to the local coterie of rich folk, is composed of nothing but sociopaths. If I was-am-were an actual sociopath, I would have never been caught.

I was sent by the Bureau of Prisons out west, to live between the mountains in the thin, fog-glazed air at the Harry M. Daugherty Federal Correctional Institution. There are no bars here, only heavy, steel doors that are locked at night and buzzed opened during the day. Embedded in my cell door is a tiny window, the width and height of the ass-end of a shoebox. I can look through the tiny window at night if I stand on my tippy-toes. I did so the first week I was here, once or twice. Nothing to see out there in the hallway save fluorescent lighting, terrazzo flooring and cinderblock walls. And ghosts, maybe. I can’t be sure.

There are no real guards–just ordinary, unbuff men and women wearing blue polo shirts with silkscreened badges on the left breast. They wear khaki pants. They wander around amiably and nod and wink knowingly at the prisoners, like we’re all in on a joke, but one I don’t understand. The guard-like people each have a small radio that emits squawking chatter and a long metal flashlight that, presumably, could crack a skull if the need ever arose.

My cell is 6 by 10 feet, composed of beige-painted cinderblock walls. I share it with a bond trader named Boris. I have shared this place with him for almost five years now. He was here when I arrived. At the time, he was boisterous, amiable, smiling, ready with advice. He has become more and more prisonized as time slinks on.

He’s shaving his head this morning–he says for street cred out amongst the other white collar
criminals. “They have to know who’s boss,” Boris tells me while running the safety razor across his head over our nickel-plated sink. Great dollops of hair plop in there. Next to our sink is an ancient, chrome and ceramic flush toilet. Boris appears to be in his early 60’s. We have never discussed his age or his specific crime. He is here for life plus twenty, so I imagine that widows, orphans and suckling babies were present at his sentencing hearing bawling about their non-existent financial futures. He is burly, but not in a very threatening way.

We wear orange jumpsuits with BOP stenciled in black on the front and back. We all wear the same white canvas gym shoes.

Boris and I each have a mini-fridge and share a small microwave oven. We are given chits on blue card stock in lieu of actual money for the jobs that we perform and we can buy food and cigarettes from the tiny commissary.

We have a nice dining facility, cafeteria-style dining with plastic knives and forks, but real metal spoons, where every Tuesday is Taco Tuesday.

I am the librarian. My library, which I inherited from a former Bear and Stearns executive, is a former cell piled high with books. I’m allowed to order any books I want through the prison ordering system. My master’s degree in English with a concentration in critical theory comes in handy here.

Books are in somewhat high demand here, as one of the amenities we are none of us allowed is Internet access. It is believed that the people here, if granted Internet access, could re-cripple the economy to such an extent that the rest of the U.S. would envy our prison living conditions.

Group therapy was banned a few years ago, too. It is a point of speculation amongst us why. It wasn’t like fights were breaking out.

Boris is the chief janitor. He says that a strong whip-hand is necessary to keep his janitors in line. “People who make six or seven digits don’t like to clean up after others,” Boris says. He finishes shaving and wets his head, rubs it dry with a scratchy brown towel. His head is hairless and ovoid now.

We are almost all of us bleached white here. The sun is a stranger. Our skintone is that of a peeled, hard-boiled egg.

There is one black man amongst us, Clive, who once ran a publishing empire and then did not. He attempted inner city patois with us when he arrived. Once he’d looked around and realized what class of criminal he was bedding down with, his tone and accent changed considerably.

The library is composed of books stacked in piles. I have shelves on back order, I seem to remember, but the shelves have not, nor will they ever, arrive.

I’m allowed to close up the library when no one comes by. The crooked bond traders, politicians and other upper-crust crooks don’t like to read what I’ve accumulated in the library, but do so anyway, because of the lack of any other stimulation. The books I have are mostly mid-to-late 20th century American and British lit. I spend most of my day reading. A hazy white light pervades the library and, in fact, the whole interior of the prison. It’s lit like an imagined heaven in here.

We are allowed to go outside when we are not at work. I close the library door, walk down a narrow, beige, white-hazed corridor and go outside.

The prison is up in the mountains somewhere. I’ve lost track of where I am. The air is crisp and thin. The lawn outside is impossibly green and lush and ankle-deep. I slip off my shoes for a moment. I wear no socks. The grass is like velvet. I look out over the mountains, past the double rows of razor-wire-topped storm fence, through foggy skies. The mountain peaks are crusty white with snow and I long to hike there, but I know that I have years left on my
sentence. I shiver. I realize that I am never warm, not really.

I go to my appointment with my therapist, who is a pleasant woman with, possibly, about ten years on me. Not that it matters. I’m in love with her. It’s Stockholm Syndrome. My love for her, which I profess to her openly before, during and after each session, is what has convinced her that I’m not a sociopath. At the end of our sessions, she peers down the hallway, convinced that someone is watching. I smile and blush at her.

Today, while I’m smiling and blushing, I ask if I can touch her hand. We are sitting in the cramped little industrial room dominated by a metal desk designed by an unanimated federal worker during the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration.

“Do you even know how much time you have left here?”

“Who’s counting?” I say with a shrug.

“The Bureau of Prisons, I should think,” she says. “All the rest of my clients know to the moment when they’re supposed to be leaving. All the rest of my clients have active court cases cooking. Appeals. Not you,” she says. “You sit here looking at me with your darling little eyeballs.” She sighs. “And that shrug. We’ve spoken at length about that shrug. I’m sick of discussing why you shrug.”

“Why would I want to leave? What am I going to rush back to? Where?” I involuntarily shrug again.

She sighs again. “I’m leaving here,” she says, rubbing her eyes with her index fingertips, groaning slightly. She is wearing a white lab coat. This is not her usual uniform. I can see a stethoscope poking out of a side pocket. “I can’t take it anymore.”

“When?” I ask, my voice a-tremble. I cannot hide that I’m crushed. I am crushed. I am devastated.

“Does it matter?” she says. She opens her eyes wide and stares over at me, saddened by my sadness, perhaps. “The stories here depress me.”

“But…” I say.

“Yours most of all,” she says with finality.

I get up to leave.

“Wait,” she says.

I wait.

She opens up a drawer and pulls out piles of blue chits. “Here,” she says. “Take my bribe money.” She forks over enough chits for me to buy out the commissary twice. This is the first time we have ever touched. “Your hands are so cold,” she says, pulling hers away.

My traffic-cone-colored BOP duds have limited pocket space, so I walk down the hazy white hallways handing out chits to disgraced politicians and thieving financiers. None of them acknowledge me. They take the chits and pocket them discretely, not making eye contact, staring at a distant place down the hall.

Boris is in our room spooning swirly, chunky ice cream out of a pint carton. It’s a flavor of Ben and Jerry’s that I don’t recognize. “I bought this because it was the last one in the freezer at the commissary,” Boris says. “It’s like you. The first few spoonfuls you’re thinking, hey this is okay. By the fifth spoonful I was regretting the first.”

He stands up and drops the Ben and Jerry’s to the floor and I realize he’s sharpened his spoon. He sucks the spoon clean while looking me in the eye. Out comes the spoon, glinting dully in the frosty light. “It’s time for me to move up in life imprisonment,” he says. “This place, it fucking bores me. It’s time for me to go to an ADMAX. I could thrive at an ADMAX.”

He stabs me in the abdomen, underhanded, in a bowling motion, the sharpened spoon entering me directly above the navel. He grips my shoulder with his other hand, and pushes the spoon through me until it is handle-deep, turns it while it’s inside and yanks it out. He lets go of me, backs off a step, and I slowly fall down onto my back, my hands not doing a good job of plugging the gusher of bubbling, microwaved strawberry filling.

I’m looking up at Boris, thinking, this is almost pleasant. My abdomen turns hot and a warmness tingles through my body, all the way to my frozen fingers.

John Sheppard served four years in the United States Army as an Illustrator (MOS 81E). He was honorably discharged after Gulf War I. He went on to receive an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Florida, where he studied under Padgett Powell, Marjorie Sandor and Harry Crews. He has worked as a grill cook, web site designer, junk mail writer, small town newspaper editor and civil servant. He lives in Chicago.

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