23 August, 2010

The Old Books Question Has a New Answer

It took the threat of a lawsuit, but the Missouri Department of Corrections finally revised its policy regarding book orders. Those in the free world (i.e., you) may now have books sent to prisoners (i.e., me), provided the books come from a vendor and appear new. Hardcover or paperback, fiction or non, hefty reference or bathroom reader — almost anything goes.

Remember that magical literary novel you said last winter I just had to read? I no longer have to vainly hope the Crossroads library will order it some day. And that collection of essays you offered to send me three years ago, only to be told you couldn't? Well, now you can. The coffee table book of risqué cabaret dancer portraits you thought I'd enjoy to no end? While theoretically allowed, the one I carry around in my head is probably better, but thanks anyway.

For everyone who's asked, and for those who didn't but now want to know, I've put together a wish list on Amazon. But don't let it keep you from expanding my horizons with books of your own choosing. Some of the best things I've read have been at the insistence of friends. Your thoughtfulness and generosity are sincerely appreciated. So is your consideration of my busy writing schedule; unless they're two-day reads, I must ask that no more than two books be sent at a time.

20 August, 2010

Cellmate Freakshow, Part Five: Tracy

[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 fifth in a series — of one horrible cellmate I once had.]

I was nervous at first, knowing Tracy was going to be my new cellmate, because there was no telling how Hitman was going to feel about a stranger moving in with his baby. Was he going to be jealous? Might he use Tracy to try roping me into his stable of boys? That didn't strike me as Hitman's style, but I couldn't be sure. The walk to Tracy's cell, pulling a cartful of my property, was an anxious one.

Everyone knew he was Hitman's boy. The two of them practically worked together arm-in-arm in the kitchen, they mirrored each other's steps when they walked the yard, and from time to time they shared a cell. It wasn't merely guilt by association: Tracy shaved his legs, arms, back, and who knows what else (I certainly don't want to), and Hitman's reputation for borderline exploitative same-sex arrangements was evidence enough. There was little room for argument. Still, Tracy felt the need to repeatedly declare, "I ain't no fag; I know I'm a man," without any provocation. That he thought he was closeted was fine with me. As long as his ego was on the line, I could be confident no funny business was going to take place.

The worst part about living with him was the interrupted sleep. Five days a week I was awakened at 6:30 AM by a noxious bout of concussive diarrhea. As though from multiple blasts of mustard gas canisters, my nose burned and blistered, my eyes withered to dried peas in their sockets. And after the initial explosions: smoke, heady perfume-stink, as the scented oil with which he doused a forty-watt light bulb became steamy clouds. I covered my head with my blanket, even folded it double over my nose, but couldn't keep from crying.

Whenever he wasn't around, the passive-aggressive form my revenge took was to call him Squirty. My friends, agonized by my continual complaints, knew him by no other name. The inmates of my acquaintance soon started calling him that, too. It's surprising the nickname never got back to him, considering the number of people in on the secret. Even my girlfriend at the time asked if she could mail him an anonymous card advising he lay off the laxatives. (I said no.) Poor Squirty seemed incapable of having a private life. We were all too happy to air his dirty laundry for him.

Actually, there was giggling even when he hung up clean laundry. One afternoon I entered the cell, after work, and was confronted by a row, suspended on coat hangers from our makeshift clothesline, of pink jock straps like plucked naked birds. I knew he'd smuggled cherry Kool-Aid back from the kitchen that morning; I'd seen the powder in a jar by the door.

"I can't believe I did that," he said by way of greeting.

"Did what?"

"Man, I thought I was putting laundry soap in there, and it was that Kool-Aid shit I brought in. I was so tired I didn't even notice. Now they're all jacked-up." He paused, looked at me. "At least nobody else is gonna see them."

I thought, Everyone's going to hear about them, though. Those who had suffered my tales of Squirty's early-morning olfactory insurrections were unanimously relieved that I had new material.

18 August, 2010

Some Incongruity with Your Coffee, Mr. Case?

My coffee is still to hot to drink when I step onto my second-floor walk — the nearest thing to a porch I have — to prop myself on a railing and watch the other early risers. I'm succeeding at holding my eyelids apart, for the most part, but let no one ever accuse me of being a morning person.

The wing's a tomb, except for the hum of the ice machine revving up for another 900° August day. Then, suddenly, a blur of motion below me. Imagine: the convict is from central casting, with the requisite waxed scalp, weight-pile musculature, and inked skin that make him a perfect candidate for that new FX Network drama. He's strutting; the saunter says, unequivocally, badass. And yet... my bleary sights focus on the little platter he's transporting to the microwave and I chuckle aloud. Our fierce Aryan's breakfast? No, not a cigarette and the blood of an Untermensch. It's a couple of slim toaster pastries topped with pastel pink icing and, in the whole spectrum of Easter-egg colors, sprinkles.

Sprinkles! Can you believe it? This is all it takes for my mood to elevate and my entire day to improve.