Mark scans the chalkboard for anything edible. Behind the stainless-steel counter, Joe wears a hairnet over his bald head, shuffles between the fryers and grill, his unit number stamped on his back. Joe turns, straightens, and asks the officers in line ahead of Mark how they’re doing today. Some answer. Most don’t. He scoops mashed potatoes and flicks them onto their trays. They move down the line. When Joe sees Mark, he stands at ease.
“Hey, Joe,” Mark sings. “Where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?”
Joe grins and holds up a metal spoon. “I’m goin’ down to shoot my ol’ lady. Y’know I caught her messin’ ‘round with anudda man.” He laughs. “What you doin’ down this way?”
“I don’t know,” Mark says. “Forgot my lunch.”
He nods. “Wifey didn’t cook, that’s what it is.” Joe turns, dumps a bag of tater tots into the wire basket, drops them into the scalding oil. “What you need?”
Mark looks at the round meat patties drowning in brown gravy. The petrified fish fillets. The trembling red Jello.
“Just some tots.”
Joe shakes his head. “Shoot. Get the Salisbury steak and leave it on the trash can for me. I’d kill for that Salisbury steak.” They laugh, both knowing this won’t happen, but it could. It doesn’t hurt to ask, as long as you’re asking the right person.
He scoops the tots onto Mark’s tray. Mark says he’ll see him in class, but Joe’s already serving the officer behind him, who calls Joe “inmate” and tells him to “double up” on the Salisbury steak.
The food isn’t the only reason Mark rarely eats in the staff cafeteria. Stuffing his face while guys like Joe work and sweat isn’t exactly his idea of a relaxing lunch break. Everyone here, the social workers and nurses and officers, all seem happy to sit back and be served. Just being in the cafeteria feels like a betrayal to every one of Mark’s students.
Mark sits and eats his tater tots with the rest of the Education Department. Jerry, a white-haired ex-cop who teaches special ed. and performs dinner theater at the VFW, usually holds court with dirty jokes. He calls Debbie, their Assessment Administrator, the “mean girl” because she is, but not to Mark. Her long fingernails are always painted for the seasons: bright green shamrocks, squat snowmen dusted in glitter. She’ll hand out Scantron sheets and pencils to a room of two hundred guys, then sit behind a desk and flip through Us Weekly. The guys, many young enough to be her grandsons, finish in five minutes or sit and chew their erasers and watch her cross her legs. Many of the guys can barely read, yet they’re forced to stare at a booklet and pencil in the bubbles:
Mock is to jest as...
- Resume is to cease.
- Bowl is to cereal.
- Encompass is to surround.
- Swelter is to freeze.
- Grass is to green.
Sometimes the guys get frustrated after a couple of minutes and give the test back to her, blank. In these cases, within the field marked “Test Score” in their file, Debbie writes: OTHER.
The officers – all in blue shirts, except Mitchum, who wears white – sit at one long table like warriors feasting before battle. Mitchum is a head taller than most of the officers and sometimes when he laughs he reminds Mark of the abominable snowman from old Bugs Bunny cartoons, the one that would grab Bugs and hug him and squeeze him and protect him, but really he was choking the life out of him.
“Chocolate milk?” Jerry points at Debbie, then Mark. “Chocolate milk?” They shake their heads. He shrugs, hops up, and walks to the refrigerator. He gets there just before Mitchum and motions for him to go first, but Mitchum doesn’t move. Jerry lifts the lid of the long casket refrigerator. Half his body disappears as he leans in, pulls out two brown cartons and hands one to Mitchum. They talk for a bit. Jerry laughs, gently slaps the back of his hand against Mitchum’s chest and walks back to the table. Mitchum returns to the officers. He eases his massive body down onto the tiny blue stool and the table creaks, the metal frame bending to his weight.
After lunch, they file into the computer lab. All of the chairs and computer stations are up against the wall. Clumps of dust and hair and a few candy wrappers scattered on the linoleum tile. Mitchum enters in a blue sweat suit, a gold shield stamped over his heart. He carries a large black duffle bag. When he places it on the ground, Mark hears the clanking of metal on metal.
Mitchum squints at the laminated piece of paper taped to the teacher’s computer station: Rules of the Computer Lab. He exhales, then watches them for several long seconds.
“The number one concern of this institution is security and safety. Safety for officers,” he grins, “and safety for staff. For you people. As you are all well aware, we had an incident last month where an inmate exposed his genitalia to a female teacher. Needless to say, you will not see this inmate again.”
Debbie snickers. Mark can almost see the joke burning in Jerry’s throat, but he resists.
“What if this inmate had been more aggressive? What would the teacher have done if he approached her?” Mitchum waits. “We are here to protect you. But when you’re trapped in a room with an inmate, waiting for us to save you, that hallway out there will be the longest one of your life.”
Mark hears Big Bob, the GED teacher, breathing across the room. A fan kicks on somewhere in the vents above them. One of the drop-ceiling panels lifts, briefly revealing loose wires and rusted pipes. Mark remembers that awful stench in his classroom, how one day Joe told him it was a dead rat in the floor drain. Then Joe was up and back from the bathroom with a lidded Styrofoam cup hidden under his shirt. He carefully pried off the lid, as if he were about to sip his morning coffee, and poured the steaming, rusty water into the floor drain to clear the rat. It worked.
Mitchem slaps his hands together as if they all just came to a unanimous decision. He bends down to his duffle bag and pulls out a large foam pad with a black handle, an “X” of masking tape on the front. Above the “X” is a small cracked screen. He presses a button. The pad beeps twice and three red zeros flash on the screen.
“I need a baseline, folks. I need to know what I’m working with.” His leather boots creak as he walks across the room to Big Bob. “Let’s go, coach.”
Big Bob pushes himself off the wall. He’s probably got a hundred pounds on Mitchum, but he looks small.
“Just hit it?”
“Just hit it.” Mitchum grips the black handle and steps one foot back.
Big Bob sucks air through his teeth. Exhales. Jerry hums the Rocky theme. Big Bob shoots Jerry a sly look, then pulls back and drives his elbow into the center of the “X.” The pad beeps.
“Oh!” Jerry shouts. “Daniel-san! Nice moves.” They all laugh. Mitchum looks confused.
“Fists not good enough, coach?”
Big Bob exhales. “They are, but not mine. Crushed them between helmets playing college ball.”
Mitchum smiles and looks at Big Bob’s hands. “Bet they hold a piece of chalk, though.”
“Doc said my hands were like two bags of broken concrete.”
Mitchum nods and looks at the screen. “60 pounds, coach. We got work to do.”
Jerry takes off his sweatshirt and starts shadow boxing. His round freckled biceps stretch the sleeves of his grey t-shirt, a ropey blue vein in the crook of each elbow. He smooths his hair, then pops the gum in his mouth. “Locked and loaded, Lieutenant.”
Mitchum holds up the pad. Jerry’s smile fades as he clenches his fists. He stands poised for what feels like minutes, and Mark wonders what he’s thinking, what images or memories he conjures to get into character. His ex-wife’s new boyfriend? A rough offender he busted back when he was a cop? Or is it not a specific person, but a blurry composite of hate and rage and injustice? Mitchum’s face is a blank wall.
Jerry explodes into the “X,” rocking Mitchum back. The pad beeps rapidly before Mitchum kills it. They all cheer and clap and whistle. Jerry does some fancy footwork.
“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you.” He turns to Mitchum. “What I get, Lieutenant?”
“You have a strong baseline, Jerald.”
“Yeah, but what’s my score?”
“It’s strong. That’s what matters.”
Jerry shoots me a look, then Big Bob, but no one says anything. Mitchum approaches Mark with the pad and calls him “son.” He’s searched Mark’s lunch bag every day for almost six months, but he never seems to recognize him or remember his name. Mark would stand between the metal detector and sally port while Mitchum pawed through his bag. Other officers sometimes crowded around to see what Mitchum would find. Once, he pulled out a green salad container and held it up by the corner as if it were an old gym sock. He left it on the table for Mark to put back in his bag. His last words each day before Mark went inside: Don’t hurt yourself.
And now he’s telling him to punch a pad that looks like a school bus cushion and somehow this will give him the baseline information he needs to teach Mark how to defend himself against guys like Joe. Mark clenches his fists and holds them in front of his face. His knuckles are red and chapped and he thinks of Joe’s hands holding the metal spoon, scooping out tator tots. White scars like maggots lodged under his skin, two vertical slices down the center of his wrists Mark first thought were suicide attempts but were actually scars from his arthritis surgery. Once, as Joe and Mark diagramed a sentence on the dry-erase board, they both reached for the marker at the same time and Joe’s hand brushed Mark’s like a block of sandpaper. Mark pulled back slightly but didn’t notice any reaction from Joe. He wondered if Joe felt it. For the next half hour or so, Mark’s hand seemed to sense temperature differently, the cool air from the ceiling vents or the hot breeze when he crossed the yard.
Mark looks at Mitchum. Mitchum nods. Mark throws his fist as fast as he can into the X. The pad is harder than he expected. He wants to rub away the sting, but Mitchum is watching.
“Decent,” Mitchum says. “Decent.”
Joe is a legal beagle. He’s always in the law library flipping through tissue paper pages of precedent cases, tearing out sections for Mark to read to him. In class, he types up the cases, letter by letter, word by word, in a massive document. Mark isn’t sure what his plans are since the institution does not allow him to print anything. When Mark first started, he told Joe to stop defacing the books. The next day, Joe waddled into class, took a seat in the first row.
“You okay today, Joe?”
He leaned to one side, grunted, pulled a thick red and black law book from his pants and slapped it on the desk. “You said not to rip out pages. So I brought ‘em all.”
Some of the departments and resources seem to exist just so a white shirt can check a box. Law library, check. Eye-washing station, check. Multimedia room, check. But the law library is a stack of mangled books on a wooden table, the eye-washing station an empty plastic bottle, and the multimedia room a TV/VCR combo on wheels. The Education Department recently received a grant to install new computers, but no matter how many times Mark tells his guys not to shut them off manually, they do it anyway, so now the computers groan each time they run a new program.
If nothing else, the guys know that if they get kicked out, they’ll lose their Good Time. The idea that Mark is changing the world, that he is some Dead-Poet’s-Society, jumping-up-on-desks, whitey-come-lately savior dissolved after the first week. The class is a transaction, an exchange of basic reading and writing skills for days off their sentence. X number of guys in class = X amount of grant funding = Mark’s job. Guys like Joe seem to enjoy Mark’s class and learn a thing or two, but it was hard to tell sometimes. Hard to tell what a pebble sounds like when it’s tossed into the Grand Canyon.
“Now,” Mitchum says, “as you are all aware, we have some creative guys here. Industrious. And that might be a good thing in school, but not here. Not upstairs. Some of you have seen these items, some of you haven’t. “
Mitchum dumps a plastic bag onto the table. They each take a turn browsing the contraband. Some of it seems real, others look like props a party store might sell with a cheesy prison costume. A jagged plastic fork with a masking-tape handle, a short piece of metal hidden inside a Bible. Others are frighteningly real. Paint chips collected over months, softened in a sink of hot water, then molded and dried into a ball as hard as concrete. Newspapers and magazines rolled into short bats and wrapped in layers and layers and layers of plastic wrap. Some aren’t weapons, but intricate picture frames made from colored paper and the shiny interior of potato chip bags. One picture frame is in the shape of a heart with a smaller heart inside, dangling from a thread.
The last item is a children’s book made of cardboard and shoelaces.
“This inmate soaked several flavors of Jolly Ranchers in different cups, then dipped his fingers into each one to color the pictures.”
“And then what, Lieutenant?” Jerry asks. “He tucked you in and read you a bedtime story?”
They laugh. Mitchum doesn’t.
Mitchum flips the book over and in between the last page and the back cover is a broken metal ruler, sharpened to a point, EDU. DEPT. stamped on the back.
“Huh,” Jerry says. “Didn’t see that comin’.”
“Fuck this!” Joe slammed the classroom door. “Bullshit, man. Bullshit.”
The other students looked up from their books or turned from their computer screens to watch Joe pace in front of Mark’s desk.
“What’s the problem, Joe?”
“They writin’ me up, man! Tryin’ to take my Good Time.”
He stopped pacing and looked at Mark. He smiled. “I was with a female.”
Mark tried not to smile, which made Joe’s smile grow wider. Joe popped a butterscotch candy in his mouth, balled up the wrapper, shot it at the garbage and missed. Then he pulled a chair up to Mark’s desk and sat down.
“She threw me a kite. Left it in one of my law books, right where she knew I’d see it. Ain’t that something? So I send one back to her, ‘cept I left it in an Us Weekly I knew she was readin’.”
“How’d you know that?”
“I just knew, man. You gotta know these things. So we write back and forth for a few days and then we say it’s gonna be Tuesday, right. Tuesday’s the day.”
Mark thought about all the law books Joe brought to class, the hours he spent in the library and wondered how much time he really spent on his case. He leaned closer and Mark smelled the cafeteria on him, the hot plastic and dishwasher steam and fryer grease. When he talked, his breath cut through the smell of his clothes, his words riding a sickly-sweet wave of mint and decay.
Turned out Joe knew the woman from the outside. They picked a spot – the bathroom at the back of the library. He hid and waited three hours for the officers to bring the women down for their library time. She picked up her copy of Us Weekly, read his note, and asked the librarian if she could use the bathroom. Joe stood naked in the stall, his uniform spread out into a bed in front of the sink.
“They callin’ it ‘Sexual Misconduct’ and ‘Lewd Behavior.’ Motherfuckers got they own names for everything.”
Some of the other students laughed and nodded. Mark wanted to do the same, but didn’t. He cleared his throat. When he spoke, his voice sounded as if it wasn’t coming from his mouth but somewhere else, someplace behind him.
“You know the rules, Joe.”
Joe’s smile disappeared. He squinted at Mark.
“Maaannn, whose side you on?”
By 2:30, Mitchum is bored with them. Their weak punching scores stripped him of his drill-sergeant gusto like a teacher deflated by poor quiz grades. He’s watched them glancing at the clock, fidgeting, tapping the tips of their sneakers against the linoleum. Like any discouraged teacher, he shows a movie.
The TV/VCR combo wobbles on shopping-cart wheels. Mitchum reaches into his duffle bag and pulls out a video sheathed in a plain white box.
“What you are about to see is graphic.”
Jerry smiles, his eyebrows bouncing at Debbie, who slowly raises her middle finger, just to the second knuckle, and wiggles the lacquered heart on her nail. Big Bob is nearly finished with his crossword. Mark is so bored his body aches.
“This video contains footage that may be difficult to watch. But we’re all adults here. We can handle it. And remember where you are. You see things here every day that are difficult to watch.” He scans the room, making eye contact with each one of them. “Right, coach?”
Big Bob sits up. “Yes, sir, Lieutenant, that’s correct.”
Mitchum turns his back to us and puts the tape in the VCR. A horrible crunch, teeth chomping into plastic. “Oh, you gotta be–” Mitchum taps the eject button quickly and when he pulls out the tape it leaves a trail of shiny black film. He pulls harder, lets up a little, then pulls again, as if trying to yank a chew toy from a dog. “God dammit!” One last pull snaps the film and Mitchum stands staring at the VCR, strands of film dangling from the machine’s mouth.
“Technical difficulties. Please stand by,” Jerry says.
“Fuck you, Jerald.”
“Isn’t that what you’ve been doing for the last two hours?”
Mitchum turns fast, raises the broken tape over his head, then stops, glaring and breathing like some Hollywood gladiator.
“Mitchum. Honey. Relax,” Debbie says, walking up to him and rubbing his forearm. She turns and mouths something to Jerry.
“You know, what?” Mitchum says. “Class is over. You’re all dismissed.”
It’s about time. Always. How many hours before class, before lunch, before break, before they could leave. The guys ask the teachers daily to check their wrap-up date or their earned Good Time. They keep one eye on the clock, as if their gaze could rip the hands and numbers out from behind the metal cage. But most of the clocks are broken. All of the teachers wear watches.
Back in his office, a windowless box at the end of a long windowless hallway, Mark preps for class. Jerry sits across the hall. He leans back in his chair, resting his shiny black shoes on the corner of his desk. He’s flipping through a booklet of white pages bound by two large gold metal clips. Mark watches him read. Jerry looks up from the page, moves his lips, then looks back at the page. He does this for several minutes, then stands up and paces the room, gesturing as if speaking to an audience. When he catches Mark looking, he laughs and shoots him with his thumb and pointer finger.
“Got some down time, bub?”
“Yeah,” Mark says. “Class doesn’t start for another hour or so.”
“Right. Principal Mitchum gave us a half day.”
Mark smiles. “You got a show coming up?”
Jerry picks up his script and walks across the hall. He stops in the doorway, smooths his hair, runs his thumb and pointer finger across his top lip, shakes out his arms. He widens his stance, his left foot slightly in front of his right, as if stepping into starting blocks.
“Marvelous baby, marvelous. You look marvelous tonight, each and every one of you. Have I ever told you about the time I met Dean Martin? Brilliant man, brilliant man. Genius. Nice guy, too. You know, most geniuses are conceited, but not me.”
“That’s good, man. You wrote it?”
Chairs and tables shuffle on the floor above them, men shouting, a thud, then silence. Mark looks up at the ceiling.
“What’s up, bub?” he says, eyes on his script.
“Is it weird being on the other side now? Going from busting these guys to teaching them?”
“I lose sleep for different reasons now.” He steps into Mark’s office. “Back then, I used to worry about myself, you know my safety and shit. Not in the moment – you do what you gotta do – but at night, in bed. Now I think about these guys and what’s gonna happen to them after they leave and if a couple months in my class’ll do anything for them.”
“Did you ever think about being a C.O.?”
He exhales sharply and jerks the air in front of his crotch. “Are you kidding me? Like Mitchum? Hell no.” He laughs. “Been dealing with guys like him forever. Angry and dumb. We’re all angry and dumb sometimes, but guys like Mitchum make a career of it.”
No matter how many conversations he’s had with Jerry, each time, the guy doesn’t seem real, like any second now, a director will stand up and shout cut!
“You think anything’ll happen because of today?”
“That shit at the training? Nah. We’ve gotten into worse. Had ol’ Mitchy pinned up against the coffee truck a few years back.”
Mark laughs. “What? Really?”
“Yeah, stupid shit. Called me a “turncoat.” Actually said that. Like he must’ve just watched the History Channel the night before.” He waves his hand as if swatting away a fly, then glances at his watch.
“Alright, bub, I gotta get back to this.” He holds up the script and starts walking back to his office.
“OK,” Mark says. “Thanks.”
“Oh, hey, Jerry. What’s your name this time?”
He stops with his back to Mark. Pauses for a moment. Then slowly turns, one eyebrow cocked. “Don. Don Kashane.”
Mark stays late that afternoon to clean his classroom. Big Bob and Jerry have left for the day, and he hasn’t seen Debbie since the training. Or Mitchum. But if Mark stared hard enough into the camera’s eye in the corner of his classroom, he could almost see Mitchum peering back.
He walks around the room, picking up butterscotch wrappers. There’s one beneath the computers, and when he bends down to pick it up, he bangs his head on the edge of the table. Cursing and rubbing his forehead, he sees his reflection trembling in one of the blank monitor screens. He reaches out to steady it and it nearly falls apart in his hands. It’s hollow, like a cardboard TV a furniture store would use in a display. Mark checks the computer tower. Empty. He doesn’t move. He doesn’t breathe. His ears ring. His watch ticks. It’s as if Joe has just brushed against him, shucked off a full layer of skin, leaving Mark crouched on the floor, pink as a newborn rat.
Anthony D’Aries is the author of The Language of Men: A Memoir (Hudson Whitman Press, 2012), which received the PEN Discovery Prize and Foreword’s Memoir-of-the-Year Award. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Boston Magazine, Solstice, The Literary Review, Memoir Magazine, Sport Literate, Flash Fiction Magazine, and elsewhere. He currently directs the low-residency MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University.