25 October, 2010

Halloween in the Hoosegow

[This post, as well as four others from The Pariah's Syntax, was selected by the editors of Meridian, a semi-annual literary journal from the University of Virginia, for publication in their twenty-seventh issue, in May 2011. The other posts to appear in that issue were "On the Scarcity of Toilet Paper" "Only A Fleeting Thing," "In Memory of Monuments," and "Joe." But just because you can read them here doesn't mean that you shouldn't order a copy from Meridian's website, thereby supporting the kind of publication daring enough to print such writings as these.]
There are only two things about Halloween I don't like. One is that it only gets celebrated one day each year. The other is that some people think it's acceptable to give out wax lips to trick-or-treaters — it isn't. As to the former, someone in a position of influence needs to institute Halloween as a bimonthly event. I suspect such a practice would work well for everyone. Since it is just an annual thing, though, I'm compelled to milk every minutely spooktacular moment for all it's worth. Even in prison.

Years ago, in the weeks leading up to Halloween, I made a pilgrimage to the local mega-drugstore for industrial-sized bags of generic candy corn. (As if there were such a thing as name-brand candy corn!) It seems mid-autumn is the only season US candle manufacturers see fit to add sugar to their mix and rebrand it as something edible. Yes, I realize the paradox of acknowledging the vast undesirability of candy corn while simultaneously, as I am now, salivating for it. Can anyone supply a hypothesis as to why this is? Could it be something Pavlovian about the familiar tricolor cones, conditioned within us from a young age? Or is it some deep evolutionary cause the makers of that waxy deliciousness willfully exploit? All I know is that I would eat them until my tongue was raw.

Scary movies were another tradition for me. The week before Halloween always found me screening the favorites, both creepy and corny, that I considered synonymous with the Eve of All Hallows, from The Night of the Living Dead to The Nightmare Before Christmas, from Bram Stoker's Dracula to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, from Universal Studios' masterful Frankenstein to Mel Brooks's mocking Young Frankenstein. My living room was a tomb, bathed in eerie television light, from which the most godawful sounds emerged to haunt the neighbors' dreams... like the songs of Shock Treatment, the 1981 follow-up to Rocky Horror.

On the day — or, rather, the night — itself, there was always a costume for me to don, always an event for me to attend, always a fantastic escape from the quotidian day-to-day, until dawn at last eased itself up from the horizon and drove me back to my lair, like the ghostly Count in Nosferatu.

The rising sun hasn't driven me westward in a long time, but I still make Halloween a special event. There are enough shockingly nonnutritious foodstuffs available from the prison canteen that my compatriot in Halloween fandom and I can splurge every year on milk chocolate and jellybeans. These sweets carry us through the marathons of horror flicks that air on basic cable, which we watch wide-eyed and poorly postured — zombified, if you like — on our bunks, surrounded by empty bags of M&Ms and microwave popcorn.

We don't stop at candy. Between the two us us, we split a couple of full-size bags of tortilla chips. Both get smothered by three pounds of pinto beans, a half-pound of cooked summer sausage, nearly a pound of spicy nacho cheese, liberal applications of picante sauce and ranch dressing, an entire freshly diced onion, and, not to overdo it, a gentle scattering of sliced Spanish olives.

This ghoulish helping of elaborate nacho-feasting is our consolation for missing out on all the apple-bobbing fun you people are having out there without us. When you're so full it hurts, it's hard to feel too awfully upset about life's injustices.

Of course, it is possible that even an enormous portion of spicy junk food won't eliminate the bitterness completely. For these situations we reserve the nuclear option: It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. No melancholy I have yet known can withstand this tag team of simple joys.

01 October, 2010

Cellmate Freakshow, Part Seven: Blake

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

Some dance to the beat of a different drummer; Blake danced to absolutely nothing at all. And like a drunk, genetically engineered hybrid of John Travolta and Michael Jackson (circa Saturday Night Fever and Bad, respectively), Blake did his hilarious little jig with flailing disco arms and shambling steps. He did it on request ("Hey, Blake, do your dance for us!") and he did it often. Everyone laughed but Blake. To him, dancing was serious business.

His favorite show, watched daily in reruns, was Beverly Hills 90210. With plots and an overall look that bore striking similarity to shows made in the 1950s, 90210 always seemed dated to me. Blame Aaron Spelling, I guess. Blake, however, had been born in that earlier era. He was hopelessly in love with the zeitgeist of his childhood — doo-wop music, pompadours, hugely double-breasted suits — so the temporal confusion of his beloved show was all the more reason to be into it as much as he was. During scenes of school assemblies, graduations, or applause inspired by performing artists, Blake followed suit with a polite golf clap. If there was onscreen dancing, he shuffled his feet around on the floor, doing a seated approximation of the jitterbug. If Donna got herself into yet another jam, or if there was trouble brewing for Brandon, Blake murmured a little "uh-oh" and made a tsk-tsk noise under his breath.

Endearing as these quirks might seem, he wasn't always a genial simpleton. Often he'd become angry about trivial things and lash out. I suspected OCD.

In the library, once, before we were cellmates, I saw him trying to find something on the computerized card catalog with little success. Letter by letter, he beat out whatever keyword he was working with, muttering as he went. Halfway through, he smacked himself. "No, no, no!" he said, and backspaced angrily. From the top, he gave it another go, and, again, failed. Smack to his face: "Bitch!" Again the backspace. Six or seven rounds of this caught the library guard's attention. Told to stop, Blake's anger instantly dissipated. All low stammers, he said to her, "Oh, uh, I was just... uh, I didn't... uh — sorry."

His anger was always inwardly directed, which was both good and bad. He was spotted one time, behind the three-quarters door of a shower stall, having a stern conversation with his genitals. The witness to this (not me, thank goodness) described it as a scolding, complete with finger wagging. Asked what the confrontation had been about, the witness only laughed. He hadn't stuck around long enough to find out.

What reasons could a man have for berating his own penis?

In the dining hall, where he worked as a table wiper, Blake always mumbled to himself. It was on the job that his minute slip-ups took on even greater significance, because everything had to be done just so, according to the precise standards laid out in his arcane internal schematics. This included the direction and necessary number of swipes of his rag to clean a table. "Oh, fiddle-faddle," he said after making his first "mistake." Standing up straight and pretending to approach the same table for the first time, he produced a freshly rinsed rag and wiped again. "Oh, fiddle-dee-dee," he said when the do-over failed.

Reset. Hands down at his sides, eyes closed. A deep breath. Try again.

"Fiddlesticks!" And again.

Wipe, wipe, wipe. Pause. "Shit!"

At least Blake tried. It was more than I could say for most.