30 May, 2010

Cellmate Freakshow, Part One: Bruce

[In the typical two-man living arrangements prisoners are used to, there are many ways for problems to arise. Personality conflicts, clashing lifestyles, differences in levels of personal hygiene — these factors lead to an almost infinite variety of tensions. Some people are lucky enough to get a cellmate with whom they can comfortably coexist. Some aren't. This is an account — the first in a series — of one horrible cellmate I once had.]

Odor preceded him the way rumbling presages the arrival of a freight train. His particular mélange was one of dirty socks, horse manure, and just a hint of vomit. It was like absolutely nothing I had ever known. When he tottered into the cell, that first evening, fresh from several months in the Hole, carrying a bundle of his meager belongings, I was overcome but managed somehow to keep from retching. As he spoke to introduce himself, I couldn't help seeing mysterious particles hidden away in his brain-coral topiary of gray-brown facial hair. They were dread secrets I daren't wish to know. The handshake he proffered was sticky.

The Hole offers an admittedly rough standard for hygiene — five-minute showers every three days, no fingernail clippers, no shaving paraphernalia, et cetera. Even a couple of nights there will leave the average man feeling its stale miasma has soaked into his skin, necessitating a long, hot shower with lots of lathery scrubbing. Thinking my new cellmate's first order of business would involve a washcloth and soap, I went around the wing in search of both for him. It did not occur to me to ask why he didn't have his own.

While I was questing, Bruce went to claim the personal property that was stored during his segregation time. He got back to the cell before me, plugged in his TV, and was standing, indulging in some mindless entertainment, when I returned with a fresh towel, washcloth, and a bar of Irish Spring. "Oh, thanks," he muttered distractedly, taking my gifts without taking his eyes from the screen. Then, in one disturbing, fluid motion, he pulled off his state-issued gray pants and fell back onto his bunk, in boxer shorts and a tattered T-shirt, with an unapologetic burst of flatulence. "America's Funniest Videos is on!"

Everywhere he went, he was in top gear. One couldn't help conjuring the image, as Bruce speed-walked past, of an alpine skier in summer training. Such was his posture. He actually leaned into his turns.

After going three days without a shower, I finally had to ask him outright to bathe. He went without a fuss, as if used to being told he stank. The perilous speed at which he careened back to the cell, combined with wet flip-flops on a waxed concrete floor, sent him right to his ass in the middle of the wing. Our neighbors saw and were heartily amused. Bruce merely got back to his feet and resumed his prior breakneck pace for the remainder of the walk. Nothing would keep him from a moment of half-naked lounging.

That rush to return to blissful pantsless reclining was eventually his downfall. In his slalom from the dining hall, late one afternoon, he let a series of doors slam shut behind him, right in the faces of several iffy characters. One of the more aggressive of these caught up to Bruce in the wing, what had to be mere tantalizing instants before he was able to shed his pants, and punched him in the head several times. I was not close enough to see, but I have no doubt the series of impacts caused whole ecosystems of little wriggly things to fly out of Bruce's huge beard.

He and his offended assailant tussled awhile before guards tackled and handcuffed them both, then led them away to the Hole. When, as his cellmate, the duty fell upon me to pack Bruce's property into his footlocker for storage, I requested, and was given, a pair of latex gloves. If I could have asked for a dust mask, I would have. Even his TV smelled weird.

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