The woman from reception showed me around the unit my first day. She shuffled across the polished floor, thighs rubbing together, a freshly pressed uniform stained from sweat. She pointed a large arm toward the dayroom, administrative rules slurring under a hairy upper lip.
Jason stood shirtless in front of his room, shouting “enter” in a pubescent voice still searching for its manhood. All one hundred twenty pounds of him waited for the electronic buzz of the lock so he could enter his house.
My head nodded at the woman’s instructions, eyes scanning the kitchen table tattoo of a feather running down Jason’s left ribcage and “Parker,” which I found out was his last name, scrawled in Old English letters with what looked like mimeo ink.
Jason turned back to look, his nose crooked and mangled, like it had grown that way. His eyes were a bit too close on a lopsided skull. I thought he must have been dropped as a baby.
I could see the smooth philtrum and thin vermilion, undoubtedly from prenatal alcohol exposure. He had the same thing as several other inmates from the reservation just over the border in South Dakota, what the other inmates called “The Drome.”
I wondered when he first noticed it, or if he ever did? If he knew how his face looked? His eyes, nose, mouth spread out like a drunk slapped it on after trying to sleep it off, before the morning’s first drink.
He mouthed something at me before entering his cell. I couldn’t quite make out what he said but I didn’t think it was friendly.
Jason sneered through the square observation window on the door. He banged against the metal once the lock thumped. Before I knew it, all the windows had faces and eyes poking through. They all started banging, voices pushing through the cracks in the door, asking if I had money on my books, what I was there for, one asked if I was a virgin.
We made it to the last cell at the end of the hall, the officer’s station was at least fifty feet away from my door.
It was bigger than I thought, carpeted, two beat up wooden dressers for clothes, two metal bed frames, one with a mattress.
I wasn’t afraid when the sheriff shackled my hands and ankles, pushing my thin frame onto the plastic seat in the back of the car, driving a couple hundred miles away from home. I didn’t consider what it would be like, or that I would actually end up here. But standing in my room, listening to the endless banging and shouting outside, my knees shook. The loudest pounding came from my chest. I wept for the first time in years, since my father left for California.
I made my bed and laid down, thanking god I was in a cell by myself, waiting to go to lunch in a few hours.
It happened so fast. I picked up Nick who lived around the corner. You might remember him, the short kid with long bangs and green eyes. He used to steal Camels from your jacket (back when you smoked straights), and we’d sneak out to the trees at the elementary school, take a couple puffs, and bury them in the dirt.
Nick’s a senior now, a couple years older than me. We sat in my car in a church parking lot, snorting a couple lines off a CD case, pulling from a bottle of vodka.
Nick told me about a downer he tried a few days before, how the drug made it easy to fall asleep after doing half a gram of coke.
I told him it sounded great, that we should get some. He gave me directions to a house behind our high school. Nick jumped out of the front seat and jogged to the door.
He was only inside for a couple of minutes. He strolled back to the car carefree, smiling.
We drove across town and parked in a residential neighborhood. I watched Nick use the bottom of an empty beer can to mix the powder with water, cook it with a lighter, and filter it into an insulin syringe.
Nick did the first shot. His blood mixed with the liquid when the needle hit his vein. I remember watching the same thing happen to my own arm.
After Nick took the needle out, I saw headlights in the review mirror. I thought a luggage rack on top of the car was a light or siren. I pulled the transmission from park to drive and pressed the gas before it hit me, before the world started moving in frames, like polaroid pictures in a sequence, before darkness entered my vision and my car went over the curb, across a manicured lawn, through the front door, and into someone’s living room.
I fell asleep about an hour after I got in my cell. I woke up to chatter and doors slamming, a kid held my door open with one arm, making sure not to cross the line into my room.
“Lunch time,” he said, motioning for me to follow him downstairs to the cafeteria with the rest of the unit. “I’m Lars,” he told me as we lined up with the rest of the group, “your trustee. I’ll be your buddy for the first week, make sure you don’t get too fucked up before you even get settled.”
Lars told me he was from Lincoln, Nebraska. He definitely had that Nebraska look, short and stocky with a shaved head. He came from a long line of hay bailers and his forearms showed it. He had Thug Life tattooed on his massive wrists.
“They put some money on my books for these jobs. Once you’re here for a few months you can do it too.”
We sat at a table near the windows overlooking the basketball court, eating chicken nuggets when Jason strolled by in ankle length shorts and a hoody with the sleeves cutoff, so everyone could see his tattoos. Jason got his tray and sat at a table adjacent to Lars and me.
“These fucking guys,” Lars said, motioning to the table where Jason was sitting, “they all talk too slowly and smell like shit and fight at any chance they can get. Stay away from them.”
I sat nervously, eyes darting from Lars to the table of Native inmates only a few feet away. It wasn’t until Lars said Savage that I noticed a perk in Jason’s head. He twitched a little, the lumpy skull bobbing on a skinny neck.
Jason stood and walked to the cafeteria counter, asking the cook for a new metal fork because he dropped his. He strolled back, Jordans thumping against the cement tile. For a second, I thought he was going to pass us.
His eyes were pointed to the floor when he sprung at Lars, leaping over the table, stretching out his thin frame for distance. He held the fork, glimmering under fluorescent light, straight out in front of him and thrust it into Lars’ chest.
In Jason’s haste he held the fork upside down so the curvature of the prongs pointed downward, the utensil bending in half against Lars’ breast bone. It was still enough force to knock the country boy backward in his chair, even if it didn’t puncture the skin.
For a moment, Jason stood over Lars studying the bent fork, trying to piece together how the assault went wrong. He gained his composure, bringing a heavy foot down on Lars’ neck before the staff tackled him and dragged Jason back to his room.
Lars was moved to a new unit on the same floor of the building, just across the hall from ours. Jason had to stay in his room the rest of the night.
The other inmates whispered about the fight, their game of telephone becoming more imaginative as time passed. Finally, before lights out, I heard Lars was on the brink of death from the fork puncturing his lung.
They never assigned me a new trustee.
Luckily, no one was in the house when I crashed.
The court preceding was quick. Mom signed some documents waving parental rights and the judge gave me six months in juvie.
My lawyer told me since it was a first offense, they would drop the felonies if I pled guilty to driving under the influence.
I jumped on the deal.
Nick doesn’t write me, neither does anyone else from back home. A card comes every month from mom, usually with a picture of a butterfly or flowers on the front. They always have short messages about the weather, how much rain she had or what the forecast looks like that week.
One card said you’d called her, asking for the address to send mail. I ask the desk everyday if anything came from San Bernardino, anywhere in California, or if a return address had the same last name as me. But they only shake their heads.
A few days after I sent you the first letter, it came back, a big “Return to Sender” stamp over your name. The San Bernardino address was the last place I knew you lived.
It doesn’t matter. I’ll keep writing, knowing the letters will come back, hoping, maybe, one of the envelopes will be addressed to me.
A couple weeks after the incident with Lars, the place was starting to fill up. They told me I was getting a roommate. Jason walked in my room carrying his mattress, placed it on the metal bedframe in the opposite corner from me, and began organizing his belongings on the scuffed wooden dresser in silence.
He spent most of his time quiet; focused. I wasn’t sure if he’d always been that way or if it was the pile of medication they delivered to our room every morning.
He kept his head down, carefully designing tattoos he planned to get when he went home. He wrote everything carefully, slowly, in bold Old English lettering. He didn’t see a point writing any other way.
His creations were plastered on the walls of our room.A couple nights after he moved in, I asked him what they meant, what he was trying to create with tattoo designs and lettering.
“Folks,” was all he’d to tell me.
It took a while before I could put it together: what the pointed stars meant, the ones he etched into his desk in the classroom downstairs, or why he attacked all the new kids coming in that talked about People.
He was in a gang, that was certain, but I still only believed about half of the stories he told me.
“I ran a hundred pounds of meth from the reservation to Omaha,” he said one night, before I let him know he was full of shit and he’d start giggling like he was getting away with something.
When he was serious, he’d focus intently on a single spot on the wall while he was talking, not making eye contact while the words toppled out of his mouth like a ball rolling into traffic.
As the weeks went on, I started helping him design tattoos. I’d give him three words and he’d draw it up. Something like“razorblade, cross, Mercedes” and he’d come back the next night with a smug look on his face, proud to hand me the sketch.
“I told you I can do anything. Give me something harder next time,” he’d tell me before getting into his bunk.
Eventually, we started talking about where we grew up.
“That sounds nice,” he’d say when I talked about the house I lived in with my mother.“I live with my mom and grandma. I haven’t seen them in a year or so.”
He’d get jealous when the cards came from my mother, he’d stop talking to me for a few hours, but by lights out we were always on good terms again.
One-night Jason showed me his stash of Adderall. He had been cheeking the medication every morning and stashing it in a hole he carved in the wood behind the dresser. One of us kept watch while the other opened capsules and crushed the timed-release balls into a snortable powder.
We each had a few lines, blowing them up our nostrils with animated vigor, tilting our heads back, waiting for the drip.
Paranoia set in as the amphetamine ran through our blood. We got into our bunks so when an officer came to shine a flashlight into the room they’d think we were asleep.
We were lying silent for a time, Jason’s eyes wide, palms sweating, he began to chatter about his life on the reservation,“Things got bad after some shit with Octavio,” he told me.
I stayed silent.
“Octavio wasn’t even full Sioux,” Jason said, his mouth running faster than I’d ever seen “His dad was Mexican, lived in Sioux Falls. He stayed on the reservation with his grandma, who was Yankton.”
“Octavio was short and stocky, a couple grades older than me. He had a rosary tattooed on the top of his hand, the beads coming down his wrist,” Jason held up his arm and traced a V shape down toward his fingers “Cross right here on the knuckle,” he lifted his middle finger in the air.
“Octavio gave me the feather,” Jason said, patting his ribcage under the blanket, “when I was thirteen.”
“We loved each other,” he continued, telling me about going to Octavio’s grandmother’s house after school to eat dried deer and turkey, spending Saturdays smoking cigarettes in a wooded area near their home.
“It all happened when I was thirteen, right after the feather. We stole this jug of Gallo from my grandma, went out to the woods.”
I imagined Jason and Octavio tromping through the trees, the cherry of their cigarettes bobbing in the darkness as the night wrapped around them.
“We got through half the bottle,but that shit creeps up on you. Before we knew it, we had no clue where we were, this place we’ve been to a thousand times. We knew we weren’t making it back before the sun came up. Luckily, we had lighters so we could get a fire going.”
I thought of the boys smiling red teeth as a fire surged, a chill running through the fall breeze.
“We were just sitting there, quiet, like we ran out of things to talk about, but then Octavio started in about his dad. He sounded different, though, his voice was higher, like his throat shrunk or something.
Octavio started going on about how his dad wasn’t shit, some loser mechanic who stole copper from the scrap yard behind the shop. Octavio’s eyes started getting all red when he was talking. He kept saying he couldn’t turn out to be the same person.
I sat next to him when he really started blubbering. He was my friend, I hated seeing him like that. I could feel him shaking, but I couldn’t tell if he was cold or what. I held my ear to his chest, listening to his heart beat,trying to see how fast it was going. I don’t know if it was the wine, but his heart had a rhythm, it was moving faster and slower to a beat, like a drum was pumping his veins.
When I came back up, he was just staring at me. He placed his lips to my mouth.”
Jason stayed silent for a while. I thought he was done talking, but he started up again.
“We woke up with the sun, the dirt was cold, fire still smoldering. We didn’t say anything as we walked back, and I didn’t talk to him for a week.But I missed him, you know? I missed all the time we used spend together. I caught him in the cafeteria at school and told him it was alright, that we could still be friends, maybe something else.
He couldn’t get it together, though, he started hugging me every time we saw each other, brushing the hair behind my ear. I heard some rumors about him, about us, from people at school and around the grocery. A couple weeks later his mom sent him to Sioux Falls to live with his dad.”
Jason stopped talking at that point. We laid in bed, silent, I thought he might start back up again but he rolled over. We were both still wired. I knew he wasn’t sleeping.
What else was there to say?
I remember the fancy dinners we used to go to every year for your birthday.
You’d eat the steak almost raw, mixing the mashed potatoes with the pool of blood left on the plate after the meat was gone.
After your fourth Maker’s Mark, you’d order crème brulee for desert. The server would carry out ceramic ramekins on a platter, set one in front of each of us, pouring a small cup of sugar on top. They’d pull out a little blow torch and melt the sugar at the table.
You’d tell me to sit back when the torch came out, but I loved the smell of burnt sugar and butane.
Mom would drive home in the middle of winter (I guess you don’t have to drive in snow anymore), the radio playing, your cigarette held to the window, all of us singing oldies at the top of our lungs.
My mother sent me her usual letter a month before my release. It was in a plain white envelope with an Elvis stamp and no return address.
There wasn’t a card this time, just a single piece of lined paper, her cursive scratched across the page.
The facility had called her, trying to setup a plan for my “reentry,” asking her questions about who lived in the house, her job, how much she drank and what drugs she used.
Her hand writing became sloppier as the letter went on.
She said she was sorry, that I couldn’t come home, that she didn’t think it was a good idea for me come back to the city at all. She thought maybe dad had some extra room in California, since he seemed like he wanted to make contact again when he called a couple months earlier.
A social worker came a few days after her letter arrived, asking if I had any relatives to stay with, when was the last time I spoke with my Dad in San Bernardino, where I’d like to move if they found a bed in a halfway house.
“You can live with me,” Jason said after I read him the letter from mom, telling him about the halfway house, “My grandma has some space in the basement. I’ll even give you your first tattoo. All you have to do is find a place for six months until I get out.”
I agreed, both of us knowing that once I found a place, we’d never see each other again.
At night we started talking about life after our release, what it would be like when I moved into the basement.
“My grandma makes stuffed trout every Saturday. We can camp out in the woods. Oh, shit, I came up with this, too,” he handed me a sketch of two revolvers arched above a heart. But it wasn’t a valentine’s day heart, it was the real human organ. There were four valves and arteries that connected to the muscle.
“I’ll fix it up before I actually put it on you,” he said.
A few weeks after my mother sent the letter, the social worker came back, saying they found me a place in a halfway house in Omaha. I packed my things the last night.
Jason sat silently on his bed. I sat next to him, draping an arm over his thin shoulders.
He held his ear to my chest, listening to the rhythm.