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.

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