February 6, 2020
“Every day in this place is like eating a big ol’ bowl of shit.”
Jimmy looks at me when he says this, but really he’s talking to the guard who is getting ready to lock the heavy metal door to our two-man cell. It's Officer Beaudoin. Big fat creole guy from way out in the swamps south of New Orleans. I been down there once when I was a teenager. Not much difference between land and water far as I recall. His gut is hanging way out over his belt, Beaudoin's is, but he doesn't care one whit about that.
Beaudoin rolls his eyes. He's heard it all before. Then the door clangs shut, heavy steel on heavy steel, leaving just the small, barred window as a portal to the inner hall.
Jimmy half-smirks, half-smiles.
“You hear what I’m sayin’?” he says to me.
I nod and thread my fingers together behind my head. The springs under the three-inch thick, Louisiana State Department of Corrections-issued mattress creak and groan when I lean back against the cinder block wall. I know this conversation well, the one about the art of ingesting fecal matter and pretending it’s ice cream. We've discussed all the finer points, the pros and cons, whether it's preferable to eat it quickly in heaping spoonfuls just to get it over with, or whether it's better to nibble around the edges, one little bite at a time.
It’s not easy to come up with new things to say to someone you’ve spent every day with for the last twenty-two years.
“They try to put some whip cream on it sometimes. A little cherry. Right? It don’t matter. They could put motherfuckin’ Belgian chocolate sauce on it. Underneath, it’s still shit. And you just gotta' smile and fill up your little spoon and keep puttin' it in your mouth and pretendin' you happy. Swallow it right on down and say 'yes, sir. Delicious.' Day in and day out."
He’s still wearing the pants part of his scrubs and the foam slip-proof shoes that are the uniform of the orderlies here at Angola State. He complains about it, being an orderly, but deep down he likes it because he's taking care of people. He's repaying his debt.
February 10, 2020
Jimmy is agitated. He strips off his undershirt and throws it in the corner of the cell. He's lean and muscled. His chest is defined for his age on account of his regular hours in the weight room. He can bench two-fifty, which is more than I can do and I'm twenty years his junior. He plans to get out of here and still have some good years ahead of him.
He starts pacing back and forth. Two steps from the door to the toilet and then back. I watch him quietly. He’s mumbling something under his breath that I eventually make out as “just ain’t right.” He’s got a little hitch in his step. It’s the arthritis that he’s developed in his right knee, one of his rare signs of aging.
Finally, he stops. “They’re not bein’ straight with us,” he says.
“What about?” I ask.
“All these dudes in the infirmary. Just sick. Coughin’ and hackin’. You know Morales? From the commissary?”
“Tattoo on his neck?” I ask, although that describes about a third of the inmate population.
“Yeah. Tough cholo if I've seen one. He’s down there laid up. Can’t fuckin’ breathe. I’m serious. Like the man cannot breathe. Doctor Lee has him with an oxygen tank goin’ full blast, but it don’t seem to be doin’ nothin’. Fever too. I'm talkin' off the charts. Today his sheets was soaked right through with sweat. I had to roll him over and I could see in his eyes that he was scared. When a dude like that is scared, you know it's trouble."
I don’t say anything, and he starts again between the door and the toilet.
“Doctor Lee say it’s the flu. But that’s some bullshit.” It’s one of his favorite words and he lingers on the first syllable. “Buuuullshit. I seen the flu before plenty of times and this ain’t that.”
A guard’s face appears through the bars in the window. She’s new around here. Pretty white girl with brunette hair pulled back tight in a bun trying to make herself look more severe than she is. Jimmy gives her a look like “everything in here is hunky dory,” and she moves on.
Some of them, I know their names, the guards, Hernandez and Beaudoin and a few others, but not hers. It doesn’t matter much. She won’t last long. Call it intuition, but I can tell by looking at her that she’s in the wrong place.
February 16, 2020
“Today makes forty-three years.” Jimmy shakes his head. He’s washing his hands for what must be the fifth or sixth time since he’s gotten back from the infirmary. The skin on his knuckles is cracked and raw from all the scrubbing but it's not deterring him at all.
“That right?” I ask, even though I know it is because last year it was forty-two and the year before that was forty-one.
A lot of the guys in here say they’re innocent. They write letters to lawyers and do-gooder organizations saying how they’re wrongfully imprisoned, that the system is stacked against them because they’re poor or because they were born a Black man in the state of Louisiana or because their sonofabitch fathers beat them and brought them up in a life of crime or some such.
Not Jimmy. He owns everything he’s done. They gave him life with possible parole after fifty years for shooting a man in the head while he was robbing a liquor store in Natchitoches. "Biggest mistake of my life. Took me away from my daughter. Took him away from his daughter too," he says referring to the liquor store clerk. He once tried to reach out to her, the man's daughter, but she said she had no interest in what he had to say. "That's the hardest thing about it. Knowing that."
“I’m tellin’ you, Ray,” he says, which is odd because he almost never calls me by my name. “I’m more scared now than I ever been during that whole time. All those years.” He splashes some water on his face and then he turns off the faucet. “They all down there wearin’ masks and plastic suits like they goin’ on a mission to the moon or some bullshit. And I know for a fact that Doctor Lee don’t know what the hell to do about it. He pretends like he does, but I been workin’ in that infirmary a long time now and I can tell what’s what.”
“Word is Morales died. That right? In the hospital?”
“Yeah, you right about that. But ain’t just Morales." He looks right at me and raises his eyebrows. "Carter?” He touches his right cheek and runs his finger from his eye down to his jawline. “Young guy. One who got his face slashed by Bob Marley in the yard last year for shootin' off at the mouth?” I nod. Jimmy calls all the Jamaicans Bob Marley. The Haitians too. Not many guys can get away with stuff like that, but Jimmy can.
“Him too." Jimmy goes on. "Plus that new lady guard with her hair pulled back. She's real sick I heard. And some other old dude who came over from D Block and was here for about two days. He didn’t even make it to the hospital. Died right there in the infirmary. I was there when it happened. Of course, it was on me to move his body and put it in the freezer.”
Jimmy coughs and then catches himself. He grimaces and puckers up his whole face. I can tell he’s working hard to suppress the next one, that if he lets it out it means for sure that he’s got it, whatever it is. Eventually it passes and he clears his throat. “Yes, sir, I say. And then I go ‘head and do as I’m told. ‘Cause that’s how Ima get out of this place. For good behavior.” He shakes his head. “Didn’t even give me a mask or gloves or nothin’.” He walks back toward the sink and turns on the faucet again and starts to lather up his hands.
"But you know what it is?" I do, but I let him answer his own question because it's part of our routine. "It's just another spoonful I got to swallow on down." He chuckles a little bit. He can still amuse himself.
February 22, 2021
I'm alone. I'm not used to it and I can't sleep. Jimmy hasn’t come back yet. Night before last, he was up coughing and rolling back and forth. Officer Hernandez came by on patrol and did a spot check and when he shined his light through the little window on our door, Jimmy was in such a bad way that Hernandez got right on his radio and had the nurse come up. They gave me a surgical mask to wear, like that’s gonna do a lick of good when we’re in here all day breathing the same air. Besides, I feel like hell already, like a box truck ran me over and then backed up and just parked right there on my chest.
February 24, 2021
“C Block is now on lockdown.” It’s the warden’s voice through the intercom system. “Due to a worsening outbreak of a respiratory virus, all inmates will now be required to remain in their cells during scheduled mealtimes by order of the State Health Department.”
Someone from the floor above me yells out “go fuck yourself, Mr. Warden, Sir,” and that starts a whole bunch of other guys hollering and telling each other to “shut your damn mouth or else,” which elicits the inevitable question: “or else what?” There are lots of comments about violating sisters and mothers and aunts and daughters and a bunch of racial slurs and whatnot until all the guards come scrambling out of their stations and pick out one or two cells kind of at random and go in and beat some guys up pretty good with their nightsticks. Needless to say, everyone is on edge.
It doesn't much matter to me. I still can’t catch my breath and I’m too weak to stand, so I couldn’t go anywhere even if I wanted. The infirmary’s full and there’s nowhere to put me. A lot of other guys are in worse shape than me, even. A nurse stops by most hours and takes my temperature and gives me Tylenol.
February 28, 2021
Men stand at their cell doors looking out of the window and babbling nonsense. Twenty-three hours a day in a cell with nothing but your thoughts and fears and the smell of your own farts and unwashed armpits is enough to make a man lose his damn mind. The warden told us the other day that we're allowed to smoke inside because we can't go outside except for once every couple of days and not smoking makes the guys ornery. Up and down the hallway I can see arms sticking out through the bars, bouncing up and down, hands flicking ashes onto the floor. The air burns my lungs even though I'm starting to feel better, generally speaking.
Beaudoin told me yesterday during his rounds that Jimmy is in the hospital. They took him off in an ambulance. He was in bad shape, he said, Beaudoin did. Got a tube in his lungs and everything. I hope he's doing all right, but they won’t tell me more than that.
They let me shower and then I get to go outside for half an hour because it's my turn and I'm finally feeling up to it. There are only a handful of guys in the yard with me, and everyone makes sure to keep his distance, each of us standing way off in a corner, walking around in little circles and looking down at our feet. The first spring flowers are starting to come up. The little yellow ones. Buttercups, I think they're called.
March 3, 2020
They brought in a refrigerated trailer and put it in the employees parking lot where nobody from the news can see it. They want to keep this all hush hush, what's happening here. Wouldn't want to scare the civilians on the outside.
“They’re trying to kill us. It’s the government. They want us gone.” A guy by the name of Jonny Hollander, who’s serving twenty-five years for carjacking and manslaughter, yells out to anyone who will listen. He works in the library and nobody seems to much care for him. Something like that used to rile people up, what Jonny is yelling about, but now everyone just sits quietly and tries his best to ignore it. Nobody wants to breathe and yelling means breathing.
I’ve lost count of how many have died. At least now we have a name for it. We know what it’s called. Jimmy was right about one thing: it’s not the flu.
They come around and give us lunch in our cells, like they do everyday since we went into lockdown. Some poor sap slides my tray through the slot at the bottom of my door and then disappears. Young kid. Eighteen, maybe twenty, putting on an act like he's not scared, but he is. I can tell.
March 6, 2020
Jimmy died yesterday. The pastor came by and told me and said a prayer with me and I closed my eyes and mumbled out what I could remember of it because I thought it was what I was supposed to do in that particular situation. Though I walk through the shadow. I fear no evil. Thou art with me. "Jimmy’s not with me. And he's not with his daughter either," I say to the pastor. "And he was doing everything right so he could get out of here and see her again, his daughter. So that's some buuullshit." I say it like he would have. The pastor looks like he wants to try to comfort me, but then decides against it. He can probably tell I'm not much in the mood for being told that God works in mysterious ways.
I'm starting to get used to being alone.
Lunch is baked ham with sides of green beans and macaroni and cheese. That means it must be Friday. There’s a paper cup too with a lid. I peel it back. Inside’s a thin layer of chocolate sauce. It's more beige than brown and it’s crumbling around the edges. A frozen cherry rolls around along the paper wall. Sometimes they do this when morale gets really low. With the plastic spoon I crack the sauce and dig out a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. I examine the contents just to make sure.
"Here's to you, Jimmy,” I say. Then I put it in my mouth and let it melt on my tongue and swallow it right on down.
One little bite at a time.